Last year Dennis MacDonald and I had a moderated conversation on the PineCreek channel regarding the plausibility of Jesus never really being a person in history. MacDonald is famous for proposing the Gospels construct myths about Jesus partly from Homeric and other Gentile models, and partly from Jewish Old Testament models. His Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark is still an enduring classic. His equally important work on the Septuagint parallels is the lesser known Two Shipwrecked Gospels. But his latest survey of both features in constructing the mythology of Jesus is Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero.
By Richard Carrier
In all of this MacDonald is a minimalist but not a mythicist. He believes almost everything said about Jesus in the Gospels is mythical. But he also believes there is some, albeit scant, data supporting some sort of real historical Jesus. I’ve addressed his case for that before. But on PineCreek we got to go into more depth about it. Following is a partial transcript and commentary. I did not vet the transcript—it was provided by a reliable colleague—but it should be accurate enough. Though if anyone catches any errors in it, do let me know and I’ll correct them here. Some things in it have also been edited for this medium, for flow and clarity.
Dennis speaking: [N]either of us is a theist, but we do have different attitudes toward the historical Jesus. We’re both historians. I do not call myself an atheist. I call myself rather “a frequently outraged Christian humanist.” And I own all of those. I’m not always outraged. I’m usually outraged. I understand myself to be in the Christian tradition and Christian discourse, and I own that, but I also am a humanist and I don’t make any claims of revelation, or special divine inspiration for my worldview. But it’s something that sustains me and I’m proud to be identified with that tradition and would say that often, but not often enough, the Christian discourse produces things that are good for human life. I would say the same thing about Buddhism and Islam and Judaism, and so that’s where I would locate myself. So the issue is…not whether [there is a God] but rather [the historical Jesus].
I do believe in the historical Jesus, that there was a Jesus. But not because of the depiction of him in the New Testament directly. As I’ve tried to show…that the Gospels…are all derivative of earlier traditions and all have been heavily mythologized, in order to make Jesus competitive in the religious world of antiquity, which Richard [Carrier] has studied as much as I have. And so that Jesus variously competes with Dionysus, as in the fourth Gospel, or with Odysseus and Hector, as in the Gospel of Mark; or with Socrates, as one finds in Luke Acts.
And so this heavy layering of mythology needs to be appreciated and discounted in any claim to the historical Jesus, but too often, people who deny the existence of Jesus do not pay enough attention to the so-called Q document, which is a hypothetical but highly plausible document that’s earlier than all of the [extant] Gospels and does not show signs of heavy mythologizing that we find in the Synoptics [Mark, Matthew, and Luke]. The amazing thing about the Q document—which I prefer to call “the logoi of Jesus,” and my reconstruction is more than twice as long as standard [editions] and is sometimes known as “Q Plus”—[is that it] clearly is a Jewish document. There’s no faith in Jesus that gives eternal life. Jesus is a Jewish prophet. All of his followers are Jewish. There’s a command not to go to Gentiles who likely are called “dogs” or “swine,” but only to the lost sheep of Israel. But this is the Jewish document that portrays Jesus as the coming prophet like Moses, but who challenges traditional Mosaic law on a principle of compassion.
So many of the debates that one finds in the Gospels about observing the Sabbath, dealing on the Sabbath, tithing and so on, are coming from the Q document, that portrays Jesus in competition with other Jewish interpreters, in order to make the Jewish law more compassionate. I find that to be very appealing, and think that there is reason to trust the author, that this vision—which is related to the Kingdom of God, according to the Q document—comes from the historical Jesus, but not to the letter, word for word. But the moral vision probably comes from Jesus. Now one could say that that’s not very good historical proof. But I think there are two different kinds of historical evidence that I find to be helpful.
One is that we have confirmation of the content of Q, to some extent in the Pauline Epistles, the seven authentic Pauline Epistles. And to some extent in Josephus. And I’m sure that Richard is gonna wanna attack me on the Josephus stuff; I’m prepared to give my interpretation of it. But for example, Josephus and Q both talk about John the Baptist in similar ways. There seems to be a knowledge of who Jesus was in Josephus and he in fact identifies James the Just as the brother of Jesus. So one would call that in the discipline “multiple attestation,” that Josephus doesn’t know Paul, or Q; Q doesn’t know Paul, or Josephus; Paul doesn’t know Josephus, or Q. So At least we can press this back in to the tradition.
But the other thing that I find to be quite amazing, is that there are lots of details in the life of Jesus that are not mythologically freighted, they’re not theologically ‘heavy duty’. [As I explain in] my book Two Shipwrecked Gospels, each of the Gospels, as well as the Q document, contains neutral, or apparently unfreighted details—what one might call adiaphora—that seem to have been generated neither from Judaism, nor the Christian movement. As I understand it, there’s no reason to challenge the accuracy of the following information:
- Jesus’s home was in Nazareth of Galilee.
- He traveled to Judea
- [He] was baptized by John
- [He] returned to Galilee [and] conducted a ministry in towns and villages there.
- And [he] traveled with several male disciples.
- He was considered a teacher, exorcist and wonder worker (regardless of what one might now [think] about demons and miracles).
- He met hostility from Torah-observant Jews.
- He was crucified by Romans with the encouragement of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
- The number of disciples (“12”) [may] have been significant.
- At least the names James, John, and Peter (or Cephas) are attested independently in the Pauline Epistles.
This summary […] says little about Jesus’s proclamation, and for that reason, because it is not religious acquainted, it probably reflects reliable traditions about him.
So that basically is the substance of my perspective. I think there is information that does not seem to have been mythologized. The Q document does not have a transfiguration story, does not have Jesus walking on water, does not have him multiplying loaves and fish, does not have the kind of nature miracles we find in the New Testament’s Gospels, which are signs of very heavy mythologizing. So once one removes that, I think one finds [left over] the proclamation of a radical Jewish reformer. Let me insist that Jesus was not a Christian and that the Jesus of the Q document likely would not have been very happy reading the Gospels. So Richard and I would share a high suspicion of the reliability of the Gospels as a witness to a historical character.
I suspect that the place that we disagree is where we would draw the line on that mythologizing process ,and to the extent that I’ve read Richard’s work, I guess that we’ll be talking about something like that. Thank you.
Richard speaking: Okay, yes. So on the Q document, we do disagree there. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to back that. I’m more with Goodacre on that. However, I think it would be more interesting for this debate if I’m just going to stipulate for the sake of argument that we agree that there is some sort of Q document and it roughly comes out to look like you think it does in Two Shipwrecked Gospels, for example. I still think even if we grant you that I don’t think we get the historicity of Jesus out of it. Primarily because all you end up with at that point [is a foreign myth], especially since it’s constructed in Greek—it’s using the [Greek] Septuagint as its base text and is basically an emulation of the [Septuagint] Deuteronomy text even by your own thesis. (So this is MacDonald’s thesis in his book Two Shipwrecked Gospels, for those who are interested, a very thoroughly argued and detailed book. Where he does the same thing with the Septuagint as he did with Mark and Homer.)
So I think that is just like another Moses. I mean, we wouldn’t say that Moses must have existed because of a similar things; or Aesop, where we have another moral narrative written. I think the authors of the narrative are creating this character to represent their views. So I don’t necessarily think they come from a single person. They come from the community that wants to encapsulate these things. So one of these things might come from prior writing. Some of them might come from scriptures. As 1 Clement says, some of the [sayings] of Jesus are read out of scripture, and some might be revelations. Paul talks about getting revelations from Jesus that give him commandments, and things like that. So we can’t really establish that the Q document (or the Logoi) definitely goes back to a historical character any more than we can [for] Mark—[what you’d call] the Homeric version, versus basically the Q version where it’s just Jesus as Moses, [and then] Mark comes in and just has Jesus as Odysseus. They’re doing the same things, they’re just picking different characters to emulate.
When we get to the non-mythical details—I mean, we have things that obviously, well, we’ll hopefully have threads where we can talk about this further—but Matthew says that Nazareth, or the Nazareth origin, comes from a scripture saying that the messiah would be the “Nazorean.” Which actually doesn’t line up linguistically with a word for Nazareth; so it looks like Nazareth was just picked as the nearest town that matched the scriptural reference. It might have been a passage that was in their version of the Bible. It might have been in a passage that was in scriptures that we don’t have in our canon now, which we know Christians were using, scriptures that aren’t in our current canon. [Already] Isaiah 9 says that the “gospel” will come out of Galilee, and Dr. MacDonald himself has argued that Galilee was an ideal selection point for Mark as well, to have Jesus traipsing around a sea, so you can get that Odysseus parallel. [Rewriting] scripture is what the Logoi appears to be doing [as well], so it’s taking things like “the gospel comes out of Galilee,” so you have your gospel advocate come out of Galilee. He does things like Moses: goes to the Jordan, then reverses the Mosaic storyline, beats all the temptations, and comes back out of the wilderness. These are all very mythical themes. Just because they aren’t necessarily walking on water, the specific types of miracles, this is still a very mythical narrative here going on.
And John the Baptist is another example where the way Mark writes that story and the way we find it in the Logoi to me looks very much like a construct. An aetiological myth, for the ritual of baptism. What does it mean for the Christian community? It means adoption by God; cleansing of sins and adoption by god. It’s a rebirth, and so a narrative is told where this character does all the requisite things, basically encapsulates the perfect baptism in the same way that the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper, or Last Supper) encapsulates and mythologizes and explains the Lord’s Supper, and things like that. And obviously things like male disciples. It’s not like we would expect female disciples normally. And that’s [what you expect] if you are going to write a story about someone who’s collecting people and you’re going to put in there the Apostles, the original Apostles.
So my theory of course, in my book On The Historicity Of Jesus, all we find in Paul is references to learning about Jesus from scripture and revelation, and the first time, when we look at the creed and the first time Jesus is ever seen in 1 Corinthians 15, is after his death. Whereas his death and resurrection are all gotten from scripture—scripture is the only cited source, not witnesses. So for me it started as a revelatory cult and then they wanted to have this character in Earth history to really basically make this mythology that they wanted to use to communicate things, as sort of a manual for missionaries to tell stories, explain difficulties and communicate the values and message of their religion. And you can go on through all of the other [examples] doing the same thing like that. For example, teacher, miracle worker, exorcist: Paul never refers to Jesus as any of those things. That only gets invented when we see later [legends]. Mark makes him that, the Logoi made him that, and we don’t know what order these were, if Mark wrote before the Logoi or the Logoi before Mark.
Mark might be using the Logoi. This might just be the first Gospel that all the others are a redaction of, so we can’t get back to the early first century [with this]. We can’t get back to an Aramaic source reliably here. We can’t get back to an eyewitness source. This is all highly mythologized. It’s creating this character. Whether it’s based on Moses in the Logoi or Odysseus in Mark, it’s the same kind of process, so I don’t think that helps us. That doesn’t mean we can know for sure the Gospels are all myth and have no fact in them. What it means is we don’t have any way of figuring out if there’s any fact in them, so they’re kind of useless as evidence. We gotta look elsewhere to try to interpret, ‘Are the Gospels making up this character, or are they building it on top of some sort of framework of an experienced event?’ When we get to Josephus, I don’t think there is literally any sentence in Josephus that can possibly have been written by Josephus about Jesus. You can go through them item by item: they’re all inexplicable coming from an author like Josephus, who would explain more and structure his story differently.
I’ll give just one example of that: when [Josephus] says “Jesus is converting many Jews and Gentiles to his teachings.” Josephus would have explained what those teachings were, as he does with every other sect of Judaism. Multiple sects. He goes through them and explains their doctrines. If he was going to explain another sect here—“Christians”—he would have explained their doctrines; but instead what we get is this passage that only makes sense to a Christian, because it assumes that you already know all the Gospel stories behind all these weird cryptic statements, like ‘he appeared again on the 3rd day’. Well Josephus would explain what that meant. He wouldn’t just say that. And so [like this] you can go through it item by item by item. [Every time] it’s not something that Josephus as a historian would say. And many other historians would agree that that passage was added later. [Indeed] there’s lots of research by Olsen and others who show that the language is not Josephan, it’s much more matching Eusebius (or [possibly] Pamphilus], and so on and so on. So I don’t think that passage was ever in there. And I also of course have published under peer review an article arguing that the James reference was just a Christian interpolation, that the James passage was originally just about Jesus ben Damneus, another Jesus in that same story, and that someone later substituted “the one called Christ” for the “son of Damneus” part.
And that appears to have happened after Origen [in the early 3rd century], because Origen does not seem to know about this James passage in Josephus. He thinks it’s in there, but when he describes it he describes a passage that’s in Hegesippus, a Christian author who was writing much later, who’s not basing his story at all on Josephus, who is [also] weirdly unaware of the Josephus story about James and tells a completely different story. So I think the Josephus passages are later interpolations. I think there is a really good case to be made that they were never in Josephus and Josephus never mentioned Jesus. So I don’t think we can use Josephus to get that thread in there.
Okay, so that’s just the general outline, and this can lead us to asking questions of each other later. This can be the general outline of where we disagree. For me, just to give the general idea of what I think happened and why it ends up in the evidence, is the strange silences in Paul where he never really clearly refers to Jesus ever being on Earth or anyone ever meeting him on Earth. For example, he never refers to the apostles as “disciples.” He has no concept of a disciple. Apostles for him were just people who received a revelation of the Christ; and in the creed he cites in 1 Corinthians 15, those revelations occur after the death of Jesus—as if the death of Jesus was something they’re only just learning about through these revelations. And that in and of itself does not prove [that], but it’s really weird that that’s what you see time and again throughout. There’s no parables, there’s no Jesus as a teacher, there’s no ministry of Jesus in Paul. All there is is revelation and scripture. As in Roman 16:25-26, where the Gospel and Kerygma of Christ are learned through scripture and revelation; no eyewitnesses, no ministry. And things like that.
And a lot of it sounds very cosmic. I mean, you get to the basic idea of these mythic cosmic concepts that Paul talks about that are very theological. That seems to be the only concept of Jesus he has. Now we get the Gospels, they’re written, [and that’s] the first we hear of them. Paul doesn’t seem to know about them. The first we hear of them appears to be after the Jewish War, long after Paul is dead. And they appear to be redefining the scriptures and the gospel [through] this character of Jesus, in the same way the Jews defined their teachings [through] the character of Moses, and the same way other religions did the same—like Osiris; and you can pick a variety of religions. [With all] these wisdom sages, the wisdom starts first, and is a collective wisdom; and then someone creates a character to embody [that wisdom] and basically represent [it]. And all other savior figures and all other deities who give you personal salvation through baptismal initiation and communal meals, throughout the Mediterranean, all of the other ones also are non-existent actually, but are put in Earth history as myths, to actually encapsulate and allegorically describe their religion and its wisdom [teachings].
And so it would be weird [for it] to actually be Jesus that was the exception to this. So we would need some sort of evidence to suggest that Jesus is the exception to this. That he was [mythologized] out of a real person [who] just got glorified and expanded on. We don’t actually have any evidence that that’s what happened as opposed to the opposite. So I think that there’s certainly enough grounds to say “we don’t know and probably can’t know whether Jesus existed, which of these hypothesis is true.” I do think that the evidence tips slightly in favor of the non-existence of Jesus, but my final conclusion only lands on a 1 in 3 chance of historicity, which actually gives a pretty respectable probability that he existed—and that’s easily swayed by any strong piece of evidence. A 1 in 3 odds can be transformed by a 5 to 1 odds on evidence. So any good evidence could change this. Even a single piece of evidence. I just haven’t found any. So I think what we’re left with is, we need more doubt as to whether Jesus actually existed. It is entirely possible that his path was like the others.
Added Note: I did not mention it in our discussion, but it must be noted that MacDonald’s list of things we “know” about Jesus is completely absent from Paul. Not a single item on that list is in Paul, anywhere. Even James, John and Peter, though attested there, are never said to have traveled with Jesus or to ever have met him outside revelations. Paul even several times appears to say explicitly the opposite of some of those very things. For example, Romans 16:25-26 and Romans 10:14-15 explicitly say no one ever met Jesus outside apostolic revelation, and Philippians 2:5-7 essentially says Jesus surrendered all miraculous powers in his incarnation and thus can’t have been known as a healer or exorcist. Likewise Romans 13:1-7 basically says the Romans would never have crucified Jesus, and conspicuously Paul never says they did. Instead, he more vaguely says “the archons of this eon” did, which some experts like Paula Fredriksen argue “are to be understood as astral, nonhuman entities,” From Jesus to Christ, p. 122).
This illustrates how incredibly dependent MacDonald’s belief in historicity is on a long string of undemonstrated assumptions about his imagined lost Q source, regarding its date, content, composition, authorship, function, redactional history, even (as you’ll see from our ensuing conversation) what it supposedly lacked—even though it is impossible to say what wasn’t in a document you don’t have, unless some surviving version of it clearly indicates it contained something else, and we have no surviving version of Q. This illustrates how incredibly dependent historicity is on rather dubious suppositions, rather than what historians actually call evidence. This dependence on non-existent sources is the central thesis of Lataster’s own challenge to historicity in Questioning the Historicity of Jesus.
MacDonald & Carrier in Dialogue
Dennis: Okay, just for the people who are viewing, there are three passages in Josephus that people have argued maybe flagged Jesus. One is about John the Baptist which most scholars hold is authentic, but it might have been touched up. Another is the Testamonium Flavianum which is the passage that Richard has focused on and I agree with that entirely.
Richard, my response would be, I think that the “James the Just” [passage] is the more important of the texts actually, and the point there that Josephus is trying to make is that Jews were divided about whether James the Just deserved to be stoned or whether he didn’t. So there’s an ambiguity about whether James the Just was Torah observant, or not. I find that to be confirmed in the Logoi of Jesus. But the fact [that] he says “James the Just, the brother of Jesus” in a book later in his writings suggests to me that the reader already had been tipped off to who Jesus was.
Added Note: I did not catch this at the time, but MacDonald mistakenly thinks Josephus called this (or any James) “James the Just.” That is not the case. There is no James the Just in Josephus. Nor in Q. That appears only in Hegesippus (or those drawing on him), a much later Christian apologist, whose account of this James does not show any knowledge of any extant James passage in Josephus. Tellingly, it is the Hegesippus story Origen mistakenly thinks is in Josephus, thus explaining how the Josephus passage came later to be mistakenly linked to that.
There is also nothing in the Josephan James passage about that James “not being Torah-observant.” It merely says he was charged with “breaking the law,” like any other accused criminal. And Josephus makes clear most of the Jewish elite opposed his execution, and thus did not agree he even broke the law, much less opposed it. And while Josephus goes out of his way to mention the sectarian reasons for James’s killer to be so murderous, Josephus never mentions there being any sectarian reasons for his targeting of James. There is so much MacDonald is imagining here that is not in the evidence, indicating his conclusion about this passage is based on a series of unevidenced assumptions, and not on the actual evidence itself.
That said, now back to MacDonald…
My reading of the Testimonium is that it occurs in Josephus where he is talking about troublemakers throughout the East. And instead of the glorification which is clearly coming from a Christian quill, he probably was complaining about Jesus to some extent. And then later on you have this reference to James the Just, the brother of Jesus, and to some extent he was Torah observant or in other cases he wasn’t. And I would say that that’s similar to the Jesus that I find in the Q document. So let me just stop [there].
Added Note: I should make clear at this point that there is literally no evidence whatever—not one iota—that Josephus ever “complained” about Jesus or Christians, here or anywhere. This is another mere assumption, rather than evidence, that MacDonald’s belief in historicity is depending on.
That would be my response to you about Josephus. But let me, before you answer just, for everyone, here are some places we agree. There’s no extant evidence for sayings preserved from Jesus in Aramaic; everything is in Greek. We have nothing that is not perspectival; that is, no one is writing a historical reportage about who Jesus was. And Richard is quite right that the Q document already is going through what I would call, not a process of mythologizing but a fictionalizing, but even so, that removes it from reportage. So Richard and I are going to agree on the heavy mythologizing in the Jesus tradition and that separates us from most scholars in the field, so that’s a place where we would agree. So, Richard, I’ll let you come back to Josephus but then I want to pick up some of your other issues.
Richard: Yeah. Well, I think just very briefly that if Josephus had intended the James passage to be a pickup to the other reference in Book 18 [i.e. the Testimonium Flavianum] he would have put a back-reference in. This we can show. He does this time and again. He always does back-references. The fact that there is no back reference here is actually an argument against the authenticity of it, against it originally referring to Christians. [And] it doesn’t refer to Christians, it only refers to Christ. In fact the passage Doesn’t even say James is a Christian. It just says he’s the brother of Jesus. Well, this is the thing that readers of Josephus wouldn’t know. Who cares about the brother of Jesus? Is James a follower? Is James a Christian? That would be explained. Josephus is a better narrator than this, essentially.
So there are a lot of little things like that that don’t make sense on that thesis. But [they do] if you were to [remove] “the one called Christ”—which [phrase] appears to come from Origen. [who] mistakenly thought that a passage [actually] in Hegesippus was in Josephus [here], and he probably put a marginal note, or someone did, but it got incorporated in. It might have replaced [the phrase] “Son of Damneus,” because right after [a story about] a “James brother of Jesus” being stoned to death, the action that is taken is to put Jesus ben Damneus—Jesus the son of Damneus—in the priesthood, to replace the guy who was deposed for involving himself with this execution. [Which] makes much more narrative sense; that they’re basically hostilely reacting to this illegal execution, by putting the brother of the guy who was killed into the position of the man who killed him.
And the thing [they were complaining about] in there is that this was extrajudicial. Josephus says this, that they were not supposed to have done this execution without permission. He doesn’t really say there were factions. In fact all the leading men, it says that a tremendous amount of leading Jews, were actually defending James in this passage. There was outrage that he was executed. There might have been an outrage just over the procedural issue—but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of sense to be outraged by the killing of a heretic, whom they supposedly were persecuting, right? So all of these details don’t make a lot of sense on the Christian interpretation. I could say more, but what’s your take on that perspective?
Dennis: Well, I wish they maybe were clearer.
Richard: I do too. I wish they were. And it would not take much, either, for this to be more easily resolved for historicity, or against. The evidence we have for Socrates would be enough for me, if we had it for Jesus.
Dennis: Well, I think we do, but in any case, the issue of…now, what was I going to say? You said that James the Just was [not] a Christian. I don’t think that James the Just was a Christian either. I think we’re talking about a potentially radical form of Judaism. That is getting people in trouble, prior to the war. And I can imagine Jesus being involved in that controversy.
The issue about Nazareth: the way most people interpret it Richard is not [like that]—because we have Nazareth already in the Q document, and if not, [it’s] certainly [in] Mark without a theologizing element. And then Matthew comes along and he’s trying to force something. He frequently [does], you can see…and you know this…frequently in the infancy narrative. In other words, ‘this happened to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet’. So that he deals with something that is received in tradition and then forces the biblical interpretation on top of it. That would be my attitude toward Nazareth. It’s not that the biblical texts came first and then Nazareth was created to give a…
Richard: Can you give another example of Matthew or any New Testament author fabricating a fake biblical verse and using that as evidence that Jesus fulfilled prophecy?
Richard: Because you’re suggesting that the scripture that Matthew says “Nazorean” comes from, you’re suggesting he made that up, that there’s no such scripture.
Dennis: But he made up the connection between the scripture and the tradition that we know.
Richard: But that’s where the word “Nazorean,” which does not actually mean ‘someone from Nazareth’, becomes telling. I think you’re looking at what actually was Mark’s source. Mark actually doesn’t talk about, often times, where his sources are. He’s emulating Moses but he doesn’t say he’s emulating Moses. He emulates Elijah, but he doesn’t say he’s emulating Elijah. He’ll reference Daniel but he won’t mention the verse, or that he’s even referencing Daniel. Matthew will come along and add these things in, but it’s not that Matthew is inventing the connections. Mark just wasn’t exclusively putting them in there. Matthew’s doing it. So we can say that Mark got the idea from scripture. Matthew’s just savvy enough to know that he did that and puts it in. And it’s 50/50 right, so you don’t know.
Dennis: That’s not the kind of scientific historian you are. You don’t just say “there must have been there, this idea of Nazareth, and then you have a place name and then somebody figures out the origin of it.” That’s really not that good a story.
Richard: Oh no. [That’s not how it works. Rather] we have two competing theories, right? So we might not know which it is. But we’re stuck at 50/50. How do we adjudicate between the two hypotheses, that Mark got Nazorean from scripture and picked the nearest town that fit in Galilee, [a town] which doesn’t actually fit, but it’s as close as you can get? Or that it comes from Jesus actually coming from Nazareth, and then they find some word that comes close to find it in scripture?
Dennis: We have Matthew doing that all the time, [he] does that frequently. He receives something about John the Baptist and he said this is to fulfill this scripture. He received something about someone else and he forces scriptural interpretation on…
Richard: He does it genuinely too, like the donkeys that Jesus is supposed to ride, have ridden on [in the triumphal entry]. Matthew identifies the passage that is coming from [Note: I mean here the passage Mark is getting it from, but that once again doesn’t tell us he is, but Matthew does, illustrating my point] and then [Matthew] makes it into two donkeys because he misread [that text of] the Old Testament. He is also picking connections that are clearly in Mark. It’s not always that Mark is taking this stuff from history and not scripture. Mark is often taking stuff from scripture and not saying that he’s doing it. [And then Matthew tells us it comes from scripture.] So this leaves us in this 50/50 world of uncertainty [in any other case of this happening]. If we look at a verse, we don’t know. Is Mark getting this from history, or is he getting it from scripture? We’re just left in a void of data. We just don’t know which it is.
Dennis: Let me ask a different kind of question.
[Unfortunately at this point my power went out and our video feed crashed and we had to pick up all over again later. We continued as follows…]
MacDonald & Carrier Dialogue Continued
Dennis: I will add in my own comments later. [One is] I would wish that Richard would comment on how our debate is different from [his other debates] with people who defend the historicity of Jesus. And the other is I’d like, I challenged him to somehow explain—what I understand to be—the cohesiveness and compelling nature of the proclamation of Jesus in the Q document, which finds some echoes in Paul. And I want this time also to mention the Johannine tradition.
Richard: Let’s see. Gosh, there’s a variety of things there. I mean there was a little bit of confusion when [our host was] doing the summary. It seemed like [he] said that John the Baptist was mentioned by Paul, which is not the case. So there might have been a few little things like that where it might have just been a confusion of words. But otherwise yeah, I think [he gave] an accurate description of our two competing positions. And Dennis asks what is different about this debate and others I’ve had? Of course, most of the other debates on the historicity of Jesus that I’ve had are usually turned into Christian apologetics, right? It’s usually a lot of rhetoric, a lot of denying of evidence or asserting things that aren’t true. That’s a different experience.
When you’re dealing with a scholar like Dennis MacDonald, where we’re both actually interested in the truth, we actually both have an understanding of how literature gets constructed in the ancient world, and so this is actually a better debate in that sense. Like, we’re actually both kind of keen to figure out why the other believes what they do, and we already grant a lot of things that Christian apologists wouldn’t be willing to grant for this, like the high mythologization of the Gospels. But another difference is [we focus on what actually is disputable]. Like, I know in Two Shipwrecked Gospels there’s like a paragraph or two where Dennis defends historicity, and he does mention there Paul’s reference to the Brothers of the Lord as evidence. It hasn’t come up in this debate and I didn’t know why, and actually I wanted to ask if that was…I wanted to start with that actually, ask Dennis what he thinks about that versus the alternative theories that I’ve proposed.
Dennis: Well, I’m not sure that I have anything particular to add to that, except that we have far more evidence for the existence of Jesus I think. Paul talking to the Jerusalem Pillars [James, Cephas, and John], and being on the same page in many respects with them. The Johannine tradition in my view is very interesting. According to Papias, there was an Elder John who with Aristion were other disciples of Jesus in addition to the Twelve about whom there’s no particular interest in a mythological background. Many scholars think, and I think with very good reason, that the Elder John is the same one who wrote the Johannine epistles and begins 1 John, “That which we have seen and heard and touched, we deliver as witnesses to you.”
Added Note: Again MacDonald here starts leaning on a ton of undemonstrated (and frankly implausible) assumptions about the texts of Papias and the Johannine epistles. I didn’t get the chance to call them all out in out ensuing dialogue. But for the record:
- Papias never links the person he calls “John the Elder” to either the Gospel or any of the Epistles that would later be attributed to a John (Eusebius says Papias used material from what we call 1 John but not whether Papias knew it as such, and no actual quote from Papias confirms either);
- There actually are no Epistles in the Bible that themselves say they were written by any John—they only say “the Elder,” not which one (and 1 John doesn’t even say that much); so far as we know, the name “John” was assigned to those letters later, not by their author;
- The Beloved Disciple whom the authors of the Gospel of John claim as their source is also never called John, or the Elder (and all the evidence in the Gospel itself argues it’s Lazarus that was meant: see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 500-05, with scholars supporting cited);
- At no point does the Gospel of John say it was written by anyone named John, or the Elder, or had anyone named John or the Elder as its source;
- Papias never says “John the Elder” or “Aristion” were “in addition” to the twelve disciples (Papias also never says how he knows they were disciples, and remember, Papias is well known to be an extremely unreliable source);
- The text of Papias we have never says either John the Elder or Aristion were still alive—Papias’s own quoted words only say he hunted down what others reported them to have said; not that he got it from them—he never says who he got it from (Irenaeus and Eusebius would later mistake this for Papias claiming to have “heard them” directly, but that’s clearly not what Papias actually said—they likely confused this for his tutelage under a different Elder named John).
- I should also add that the line in 1 John about handling Jesus so self-evidently is a derivative reference to the Thomas passage in the Gospel of John (as also the first lines of John) that I struggle to comprehend how anyone could think it precedes it, or is in any way actually written by a real witness. So that requires yet another undemonstrated assumption, on top of all those just enumerated, where in each case MacDonald rests his case for Jesus on assumptions beyond or even contrary to what’s actually in evidence.
- Although I should further add that MacDonald will go on to say he “demonstrates” that latter, rather strange opinion in his book The Dionysian Gospel; I haven’t had occasion to check that, but from how he kept arguing here on other like subjects, I expect what he means is, if we adopt a whole raft of undemonstrated assumptions, then we can conclude 1 John predates John. Which would not be a demonstration, but an unsupported speculation.
Dennis: I think I should add that as yet another strand of testimony to the existence of Jesus that often is overlooked in these texts. I’m not sure, Richard, what your beef is about the family of Jesus, Jesus’s brothers and so on, so it’s hard for me to react to that if I don’t have a clear idea of what you’re after.
Richard: Yeah, I didn’t know if you’d known what I write in Historicity of Jesus or other lectures I’ve given. But, well, no, in Romans, Paul says that all baptized Christians are the adopted sons of God, and he says Jesus is “the firstborn of many brethren.” So in fact all baptized Christians are brothers of the Lord. This leads us to an ambiguous status. When he says “Brothers of the Lord,” does he mean just rank-and-file Christian, or does he mean actual biological brother of Jesus? And Paul doesn’t give us enough data to tell one way or another. And similarly with the Pillars, he never calls them “disciples.” He never calls anyone “disciples.” The word “disciple” is not in there. They’re all “apostles,” and Paul says that an apostle is someone who has a vision of Jesus. So, as far as Paul says, apostles and the ones before him were just the ones who had revelations before him. So he doesn’t actually tie this into any actual events before the death of Jesus, which appears to have only been learned through scripture and revelation. We have to actually rule that theory out before we can get Jesus back in. And it’s very difficult to do because we don’t have any eyewitness documents from that period.
Dennis: Well, thank you, Richard. That does help. But this is where I think your skepticism about the existence of the Q document and my optimism about it really matters, because two of the people who are mentioned as Pillars appear also in lists of people who are called “disciples” in the Q document. And I think you’re certainly right, that people are called adelphoi tou Kyriou, that is “brothers of the Lord,” “brothers and sisters of the Lord” in Paul that are not disciples, and that the word “disciples” of the Twelve is not used. But the word “Twelve” is, “appeared to the Twelve” and “appeared to James” and so on. Now I know that you trust more the appearance tradition than you do the historical Jesus tradition, but if one adds the Q document for whom there are no resurrection appearances whatsoever, I think we have confirming evidence for these Pillars being, for the Q community, members of the Twelve.
Added Note: This last argument makes no intelligible sense to me for another reason than I stated at the time. Does MacDonald mean the community that authored Q didn’t claim to have revelations of the risen Jesus, and thus is some community other than the one Paul is talking about in the Corinthian Creed, which is essentially saying Paul is a liar, that the first apostles did not even claim to have such revelations? This is an astonishing thing to propose and I can see no way to get the evidence to fit it. I also can see no way to make sense of what MacDonald just said than on just such a bizarre proposition. But however that may be, I went on to say…
Richard: Okay. Yeah, I don’t really follow the logic there. I mean just because there was a story of the Deuteronomic teachings of Jesus that didn’t include the appearance narratives… I mean Mark doesn’t have appearance narratives either, so I don’t see how that necessarily argues for a historical Jesus. We know the Qumran community had a council of twelve, for example. So this could just be a sect, could even be the Dead Sea sect itself or an offshoot of them, having these visions that’s telling them the end times have begun. And, like Paul says, Jesus is the first fruits of the general resurrection, so the resurrection of Jesus was to them a sign that the end times had begun. So I think what we’re looking at is a sect that already had a council of twelve, already had a leader or someone who became the leader—Cephas [in other words, Peter]—and he had revelations, he communicated it to the twelve, their council for this sect, they had confirming revelations, and proceeded from there in this sort of, like, revolutionary ecstasy kind of scenario. Very similar to, for example, the Cargo Cults and other religions where this sort of thing happens.
So I don’t see us getting back to before the death of Jesus on this. There’s no evidence in Paul that Jesus handpicked these people in life. Paul seems to equate himself as basically similar to them because he got to see Jesus. He never has to defend himself against the argument that he never met Jesus in life, which means no one threw that argument at him, and I don’t know why someone would not throw that argument at him if that had been the case. So, I see, where we look at the evidence, it’s very ambiguous. It fits both hypotheses pretty well. You can have this revelatory religion becoming historicized later or you can have a historical Jesus explaining the same data. So I don’t see us getting to a historical Jesus with this.
Dennis: Well, I would agree that the Twelve could be symbolic of Israel, and it’s conforming to my understanding of the Q document and Paul’s understanding Jesus to be a rescuer of Israel or better than Moses in Deuteronomy and so on. But the names themselves are not significant names. They don’t seem to be theologically freighted and I think the correlation of the Twelve indicates that you have that as an early tradition. Papias certainly accepts it, but then talks about Aristion and John the Elder as disciples as well—mathêtês, he uses the word. Doug [our host], I wonder if we could hear some of the questions that people asked from last time.
Richard: Yeah, why not? Do we have some?
Added Note: To make room for Q&A I didn’t pursue what MacDonald just said at the time, but his argument that “the names of the first apostles aren’t theologically freighted, therefore they met Jesus in life” is simply a non sequitur. Obviously the names can be real without the later myth being true that they met Jesus outside revelations. So I cannot reconstruct any logical way to get from premise to conclusion there. Yet he seems to be strongly convinced by this reasoning. Not only a dependence on an enormous array of undefended assumptions, but also this strange dependence on illogical reasoning is commonplace among defenders of historicity.
Doug: Yeah. A gentleman named Dustin Jones asks, “If you have an opportunity, would you consider asking Dr. MacDonald if there is even one other example during the era of Greco-Roman antiquity and Second Temple Judaism in which the written biographical narrative of a bona fide historical figure was so thoroughly and repeatedly constructed in such dense, mimetic layers akin to what we find with Jesus and the gospels?”
Dennis: Yes, I think there are lots of examples. One example could be the Testament of Abraham. I don’t believe in a historical Abraham, but Abraham certainly has… You can take a look at the Testament of Abraham as an example. It has wonderful imitations of not only the Book of Genesis but also of Plato’s Myth of Er and the washing of Odysseus’s feet by Eurycleia. I think [we should] be sensitive to the use of mimesis throughout not just Jewish literature but Greco-Roman literature. Here’s another example: Aesop. We don’t know anything about a historical Aesop, but we do certainly know that there are biographies of Aesop that even talk about his death and so on. So I think we have a lot of examples.
Now in this case, I would make a case for either Abraham or Aesop, [because] we do know that these legends are highly mimetic and were influential and represent culturally something important. Which I think last time I felt we didn’t take seriously enough, and I mentioned it earlier the nature of the moral vision in the gospels, especially in the Q document, and the tradition that somebody died because of that moral vision. I find that quite compelling.
Doug: Rick, did you want to add anything to that, or say anything?
Richard: Yeah. Right. I think that kind of misses what the questioner was going for, right? If all the examples that we have of this kind of mythically constructed text are of non-existent people like Abraham and Aesop and such, doesn’t that actually argue for the same thing being the case for Jesus? Why are we making an exception for Jesus in saying he’s the one who’s historical? So I think what the questioner wanted to know is do we have any people that we do know existed but whom this kind of heavy mythologization occurred upon? Now I don’t personally think that question is terribly probative for this, but I’m trying to reconstruct what the questioner is asking, right? I think…
Dennis: Well, I find your comment strange because you also know about the fabulous histories of Alexander the Great and Apollonius of Tyana, and such mythologizing of historical characters is really quite extensive.
Added Note: Since I already assume in my math that some historical persons got treated in biographies the way the questioner means, as I said I didn’t find the guest’s question particularly useful. But I must admit it has not been demonstrated that either the Romances of Alexander or the Lives of Apollonius or Aesop were “so thoroughly and repeatedly constructed in such dense, mimetic layers” as MacDonald himself shows Jesus was. Maybe they were. But I think MacDonald is confusing just any kind of legendary development with specifically the kind of mythic composition he is famous for detecting (high density mimesis). So he never really answered their question. I actually do not know if there are any examples that do, from any century of antiquity. That could be more significant than I have realized. I should also add that the historicity of Apollonius of Tyana is actually much more questionable than would answer to the guest’s query. But the bottom line must be not whether there are examples, but how often examples end up being real persons. It’s the base rate we need, not the mere possibility.
Doug: But the questioner is asking for that specific time period. Let’s say between 0 and 100, is there any other example… You can even expand a little bit further. Are there any other examples where someone actually existed in history but was mythologized to the extent and the use of mimesis [that we see for] Jesus?
Dennis: Well, I think that’s a difficult comparative question.
Richard: Yeah, I agree.
Dennis: [Because] you’ve limited it to one century. We have other such kinds of material. Some people have argued that 3 Maccabees is written during the same time and some of the characters in 3 Maccabees may actually be historical. So if we spread it out, I think we have lots of examples.
Doug: So I think this question is… or did you want to say something to that, Rick?
Richard: Yeah. I mean, I agree. I think historical persons can get as mythologized, or mythologized in the same way I would say. I think the question we have is, for all those others, we actually have evidence that they existed that we don’t have for Jesus, and I think that’s the problematic issue. And there are aspects of the mythologization of Jesus that aren’t common for historical persons. But that gets into the technicalities of comparative studies of all of these things. I don’t think we can cover that here in this debate.
Dennis: I agree with that.
[At this point the sun comes in behind my head and I can’t position it out of view, creating an odd visual. We all joke about that a bit before continuing.]
Doug: John MacDonald asks—I think this is for you, Rick—“If mythologizing, why create Jesus to be a typical fallible prophet like in Mark 6:5 and have his detractors accuse him of being a drunk and a glutton like in Matthew 11:19?”
Richard: Yeah. I mean, there’s a variety of reasons. It’s very similar to the countercultural hero narrative we have for Aesop, in fact. It’s very similar. But also I think the narrative that’s written about Jesus is very much meant to be a usable narrative for Christian missionaries, because if you notice, the things he gets accused of and the things he does publicly anyway—exorcism, healing—and the things he gets accused of and the arguments he has to encounter are exactly the kinds of things that those missionaries had to deal with. Like being called crazy. Paul even mentions this, that you got to watch it, because people will call you crazy if you speak in tongues in public, or something like that, without explaining to them what’s going on. So I think the mythology is written specifically to serve this function. Otherwise, why would they even record it even if it was true? Remember, right?
It’s like there’s no reason for them to preserve embarrassing stories at all. They only preserve them if there’s a purpose. They must serve some function. There’s a reason they put them in there. And that reason will be there whether the story’s true or not. And that’s why you get the weird stories like the withering of the fig tree, which clearly never happened. There’s no way Jesus withered a fig tree. And it says, it has Jesus say that he’s withering the fig tree, cursing it for not bearing figs even though Mark says it wasn’t even the season for figs. So he’s depicting Jesus looking like a madman; but he’s doing that fictionalizing. That’s a fictional story. He made that up. So he chose to depict Jesus doing that, and it’s all because it’s allegory and symbol. He’s actually trying to tell that story as a story that you can tell to allegorize and explain something. In this case, it’s the destruction of the temple cult. The fig tree represents the Jewish temple cult and it’s a whole parable about that. So you can’t really rely on that because, if the story’s preserved, it must have served some function. There’s a reason they preserved it, and it usually has some sort of missionary function or some sort of explanatory function in terms of explaining the gospel, which means it would have served that function whether they invented it or not.
Dennis: Well, I hope this is the same John MacDonald that has been emailing me and that I’ve been responding too. John, it’s an excellent question. And there are many more examples of that kind of embarrassment that can be multiply explained, but it’s difficult to explain them all with a single hypothesis. And I could go on. The fact that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist becomes an embarrassment. The fact that Jesus is called a glutton and a friend of tax collectors and sinners could be understood to be an embarrassment. Some people have said that the triumphal entry has elements in it that are embarrassing.
So it’s possible, Richard, I think, that the early Christians were doing White House spin of “fake news” in creating an alternative to the fake news, but I actually think that these authors inherited problems in the tradition, especially Mark’s trying to correct problems that he saw in the Q document. I’ll just give you one example. My reconstruction of Q says that Jesus predicted that he would destroy the temple and build another. Well, if you’re writing after the Jewish War, you know that Jesus didn’t show up but the temple is in ruins, and that’s why Mark has to put the “temple” word on the mouth of false witnesses. Now the problem with my own argument is it’s not so clear that Jesus himself said he would destroy the temple and build another. One could argue that that’s a part of the polemic of the Q document.
But I think John’s general point is right on target—that there’s a lot in the New Testament that either is theologically unfreighted or embarrassing, and the gospel authors are unlikely to have created these narratives for problems that they didn’t perceive had already existed.
Added Note: Did you catch the possibiliter fallacy? “It’s possible that” the early Christians were doing one thing rather than another. That does not get you to “it’s more probable” that they were. This is another logic fail that is very common among historicity defenders. And as usual, MacDonald never seems to understand the point; he certainly never responded to it, though I made it more than once in our dialogue:
If you have two possible causes of a passage—such as, telling stories to help missionaries respond to attacks on their mission, vs. telling stories because bad things were told about Jesus by people who were there and for some reason you can’t avoid mentioning them so you do but with an apologetic spin—and no evidence to distinguish which is occurring, you cannot just “declare” it’s one and not the other. I do not need to do that; that we don’t know, eliminates these passages from both evidence columns. They can support neither myth nor historicity. It is historicists who need to argue for the probability of their causal explanation, not mythicists. Yet historicists never do. They just declare their explanation more probable. On a basis of no evidence at all. This is a serious problem. Historicists always depend on claiming to know things about the texts that they don’t. By contrast, Mythicists depend solely on admitting what we don’t know.
There is perhaps an underlying misunderstanding of modal logic here. If you say “mine is the only interpretation that works” you are saying “your interpretation is impossible,” but a claim of impossibility only needs a demonstration of a possibility to be refuted. If you say “your interpretation is impossible,” all I need do is prove it’s possible, not that it’s probable. Whereas if you intend instead to say “your interpretation is less probable than mine,” then you have to actually present evidence of that. You can’t just prove it possible, and then conclude you proved it the more probable.
In Proving History I cite or produce many demonstrations of fully plausible explanations for everything claimed to be embarrassing in the Gospels. The odds are thus equal that those explanations are correct or MacDonald’s. And as long as that remains the case, none of those examples increases the probability of historicity—at all. They therefore cannot argue for it. Those same passages thus also do not argue for mythicism, either; but no one says they do. We don’t need to argue these passages are evidence for myth; we only need demonstrate they are not evidence for historicity. And that’s true even if, unbeknownst to us, any of those passages does happen to record a historical fact and was included because of some cause of embarrassment. Because what’s possible and what’s known are not the same thing. And only what’s known can be evidence for historicity.
I should not have to keep explaining this to historians. It’s weird that I have to—and frustrating.
Now back to our dialogue…
Doug: Dennis, when do you say the Gospel of Mark was written?
Dennis: Yeah. I would say it’s probably between 75 and 80, shortly after the Jewish War.
Doug: Okay. My response to your response for that question is, if it’s that far removed from the historical Jesus, whoever wrote that about the embarrassing stuff would be 75 to 80 years old. Would they even remember those sorts of things? Would they still be alive?
Dennis: I think the issue is community memory and memory as deposited in the Q document. I would date the Q document into the early 60s, and that’s not that far removed from the historical Jesus, though it is two or three decades later.
Added Note: I did not have time to challenge this at the time, but there is no evidence at all for this date. We don’t even have the document, scholars can’t even agree on what was in it, or what changes it underwent over time, and don’t in fact even have any evidence at all that the document existed (it is purely hypothetical, and IMO a poor explanation of the evidence we do have; even just Ockham’s Razor should eliminate it). So they certainly don’t have any evidence it was written “in the 60s” much less “in the year 65” (as we’ll see MacDonald must precisely claim; as 66 started the war nowhere mentioned in his reconstruction of Q, and 64 was the last year MacDonald thinks Paul could have written, after which he dates Q). To be honest, there isn’t even any evidence it was written before Mark. MacDonald bases that conclusion on another host of assumptions, and not on any actual evidence of the fact. Of course, as I already mentioned, I am quite certain no such document was ever written. MacDonald is simply confusing Matthew (and Luke’s abbreviation of Matthew) for Q.
Doug: Oh, so you believe the Q document came after Paul?
Dennis: Yes. More or less around the same time. Paul’s last letter probably was somewhere between 62 and 64, and I would date the Q document [soon afterward].
Richard: And composed in Greek, right?
Dennis: Composed in Greek.
Richard: And it’s based on Deuteronomy, like making Jesus the updated Moses from Deuteronomy?
Dennis: Yeah. Right.
Richard: And of course I would say that that explains a lot of this stuff too, is of course they’re doing those kinds of conversions. All of that stuff, I mean there’s been tons of literature. This isn’t just me, but there’s lots of literature out there that takes a different view on things, like John the Baptist. I cite several examples of scholars who’ve pointed out that the John the Baptist thing is not embarrassing in Mark at all. There’s no reason for it to be embarrassing. It only becomes embarrassing in later authors when the theology of Jesus was changing—and that was later. That was way after. So we can’t really get to that. In fact, the way Mark depicts it, he has John the Baptist, this famous guy, declaring Jesus his successor and then enacting a ritual of baptism to mythically explain what a baptism is. This is just a perfect example of something that they would make up. It’s too convenient for Mark actually for Jesus to have had this encounter with John the Baptist and John the Baptist declare him his successor and the Messiah. That’s not embarrassing at all. It became embarrassing later, but that’s because the myth had to change, because the theology was changing.
And if you look at the other things, the missionaries themselves, the Christian missionaries themselves were being attacked with these arguments—“Why are you going to taxpayers and sinners? Why are you preaching this to these rabble?”—So they invent a story—they have Jesus do it—and say, “Yeah, because look, he did it. And look at those elites. They were wagging their heads at him.” They’re actually just representing and embodying [the Christ figure], they’re acting “Christ-like,” as we would say today, right? So they just create a story that has Jesus do what they’re doing to justify and explain what they’re doing.
And I think when you look at the Gospels, time after time again, each one of those pericopes, it’s a story being told to communicate something about the gospel, and often symbolically, like the fig tree narrative. I don’t see any of this as looking like reminiscences. And it isn’t arbitrarily collected lore either. It’s very tightly, literarily organized with plot structure and everything. So I don’t see this as coming from collected lore. I see this as deliberate literary construction to communicate a point. And they wouldn’t include things that were embarrassing; it wouldn’t serve any reason for them to do that. They could just leave it out. Because these aren’t texts written to combat [someone else’s story], these aren’t apologetic texts. They aren’t written to combat people who are attacking Christianity. They’re written for missionaries to actually preach the gospel. And as that, they’re just going to leave out things that aren’t convenient or that serve no function. And if they serve a function, they would serve that function whether they were false or true.
Dennis: Well, actually, I want to leave the John the Baptist piece out. My Q (and most Qs) have John the Baptist already as an issue for the Johannine community, and the passage about him being a “wine glutton” and so on is in the context of giving John some credence. But actually I lost my other thought, which was the major one I wanted to communicate to you. I agree with you entirely that these Gospels are not written as apologetics. But they are written as an apologetic for Jesus to the community, to the believing community, and there are certain things that had already by the time of Mark become problematic and they can’t attribute them to what Mark concocts. Now some of these can be demonstrated I think in the Q document.
Richard: But how do we know that actually? How do we know anything in Mark was problematic? What do you base that on?
Dennis: Oh, one of my new books that’s coming out is in fact on Mark’s redaction of the Q document, and he’s really not very happy with the Q document over and over and over again, so that the Q document has already created some problems, and I think the Q author already inherited some problems.
Added Note: Of course, again, there is no evidence Mark redacted Q. MacDonald bases that on a slew of assumptions for which no actual evidence exists. But to keep things on track I didn’t challenge that on the occasion, but argued a fortiori by even granting his implausible premise and exposing the non sequitur that still obtains…
Richard: But that’s just like Matthew being upset with what Mark did but Mark not being upset by it, right? Like, we had someone who fictionalized Jesus, and then Mark doesn’t like that fictionalization, so he rewrites it. Matthew didn’t like Mark’s fictionalization, so he rewrites it. Luke didn’t like Matthew, so he rewrites it. John didn’t like any of them, so he completely rewrites it. This doesn’t get us back to history. It just means that they’re arguing over what the fiction should be.
Dennis: Yeah, I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I actually want to take your image and make a different kind of point. That is, I think this business about the mimesis of classical Greek poetry calls into question the whole definition of the “Gospel” genre, as though there is a special genre out there and people wanted to write “a Gospel” and they did this Gospel. Because these things are not generically oriented, they’re genetic. I mean they’re not generically connected, they’re genetically connected. And that’s what you just did. You talked about Matthew using Mark, Luke in my view using Mark and Matthew, John knowing the Synoptics, and the reason they have these generic similarities is they’re genetically connected.
Richard: Yeah, I agree.
Dennis: Yeah, I know you do. And I would put that genealogy back to Mark’s use of Q. Then the question is, what can we say about the proclamation of Jesus and the issues that the Q author was trying to wrestle with. I wish that I could say that that was not in shadowy territory. It is difficult to. And, by the way, I think I agree with you. Most of the criteria that have been used in the past to establish the historical Jesus are problematic. So you’re not hearing me talk about a lot of the dissimilarity business and so on. But I think there’s a certain amount of trust that one can give to early testimony even if one doesn’t agree with the testimony. For example, I think Papias is extremely important and I think his solutions to the Synoptic Problem were all wrong. But he certainly inherited a problem of different sequences in the Gospels and did his best to put them in order.
Doug: Well, I have a question for Dennis. So, Dennis, let’s say I had an envelope, and inside the envelope it had the correct answer whether Jesus existed or not. Okay? And I open it up and I pull out the right answer. This is from God himself. (laughs) This is divine revelation. So I open the envelope up, and wouldn’t you believe it, it says that this Jesus did not exist historically. Now my question for you is, if this Jesus did not exist historically, what would you expect to be different with the Gospels, or how would you explain what you see?
Dennis: Well, I think that’s a better question for Richard, honestly. If Jesus didn’t exist, how do you explain the materials that we have? So I think the real question is the question for Richard. What I would think if Jesus did not exist, what would be missing would be an explanation for the radical […]
Doug: Well, I’ll ask Rick the same question, but first I would like you to still play with this thought experiment. Let’s say we knew with 100% certainty that Jesus did not exist. Do you think you could come up with an explanation for what we do see in the Gospels and the Epistles?
Doug: Can’t even try? (laughs)
Dennis: I mean… No, no. One could explain a lot of the material there, but it would be a herculean task to take a look at all of the witnesses that we have to Jesus and to then construct an alternative explanation of their genesis. This is one of the ironies of this conversation for me. The same people that have attacked Richard in the past have attacked me in the past, so in some cases we’re on the same team. We both acknowledge the mythologizing of these texts. We both agree that they are genetically connected to each other. We both agree that it’s difficult to go from the surface of the Gospels to reconstruct the historical Jesus. So this is a strange argument for me, because usually my work is attacked by people who are Christian believers in a way that is not the case for me. So it’s actually refreshing for me to have this argument with someone I consider to be an intelligent friend and to defend [my position].
Doug: Are you talking about me or Rick?
Dennis: No, I’m talking about both of you. I’m talking about both, but I had Rick mostly in mind because we’ve done this kind of thing before, casually. So I find it to be refreshing, but I find it to be frustrating that I’m taking it on the chin both from my Evangelical students and from, if we might say, the theological left. But yeah, to be clear about your question, Doug, I would, and Richard and I would both say that there is much mythologizing that happens already in the Q document in order for early Christians to make Jesus competitive in the religious marketplace of antiquity, whether it’s Jewish or Greco-Roman.
My problem is that I cannot explain everything according to that model. There are certain things that are unfreighted, that are not mimetic, for which I don’t find analogies. And maybe Richard’s smarter than I am, that would be easy to do or to be, that maybe he’s got better explanations for them. But I find that there is a grounding of Jesus’ memory that goes well beyond the things that I can trace mimetically.
Added Note: Catch the non sequitur again? MacDonald is assuming that if something in a text “is unfreighted and not mimetic” then it must be historical. There is no logical sense to that inference. Obviously legends and myths accumulate all manner of features without a theological or mimetic origin. Most myth written about anyone in antiquity, in fact, is neither “theologically freighted” nor “mimetically constructed.” There is simply no value at all in this criterion. So I cannot explain why he is so persuaded by it.
And that’s even before we get to the second non sequitur within that one: almost all of the material regarding the theological intentions and doctrinal or situational beliefs of the Gospel authors is lost, and many of the texts they could be emulating with mimesis are likewise (or have been altered in the interim: see my discussion, with examples, in Element 9 of OHJ, pp. 88-92). So we actually cannot make any argument of the form, “If I cannot see what is being emulated here, and I cannot detect what the author’s theological, doctrinal, or didactic purpose was here, then the content must derive from historical fact.”
In OHJ (pp. 450-51 and 505-06), to make this very point, I give the example of the 153 fish John claims the Disciples harvested. In no way is that historical fact. Yet we do not now know what theological point the author of John was making with it (beyond some reasonable guessing). Thus, our not knowing that, cannot be an argument for its being historical. And if that’s true for the bizarrely fictional, it will be just as true for the mundanely fictional. This is another thing I should not have to be explaining to historians.
Doug: Okay. Yeah, Dennis, I’m going to be fair and ask a similar question to Rick. So Rick, I open the envelope and it says in the envelope that Jesus did in fact exist as a real person in history. And my question to you is where do you think you went wrong?
Richard: Oh. I would just update my priors, in my case. (That’s Bayesian terminology.) No, we just didn’t have the information, right? The information was misleading, and so for example the ambiguity and silences in Paul’s letters were weird. But that means, when I say, like, there’s a one-in-three chance of that, I’m granting that the envelope might [indeed say] that he existed. It’s one in three. It just means that, if it occurred, it was less likely to have produced that evidence [the evidence we actually have]. But unlikely things happen all the time. So if you give me evidence that says, “Oh, actually that unlikely thing did happen,” well, then I update my priors and conclude that it did.
That’s how we update our evidence and our conclusions based on information. So I don’t really have to explain anything causally. I’ve already done that, in the sense that I’ve explained why “this is unusual,” meaning it’s improbable, but improbable does not mean impossible. It doesn’t mean it absolutely didn’t happen. So there’s a lot of…you have the same kinds of explanations as to why does Paul never talk about the ministry of Jesus? Why does he never cite a parable of Jesus? Why does he never mention Jesus being an exorcist or a miracle worker? You can come up with theories for this, and of course historicity defenders do. I just think they’re unlikely, but unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. So that’s my answer to that in general.
Doug: You know, what you just said, Rick, was the most compelling argument to me, because it’s a very “layman” type of argument. Like, to give full disclosure, I lean more towards Dennis MacDonald’s view. But that argument that you made, as a former fundamentalist Christian, I had to step back and go, “This is really, really strange.” The very first writings we have about Jesus mention nothing about Mary, nothing about Joseph, nothing about Pontius Pilate, nothing about disciples—you know, that term, the specific use—nothing about the miracles. And I’m going, “But this is the very first stuff we know about Jesus, and it’s all absent. I mean it mentions none of that stuff.” So Dennis, do you feel what I’m feeling, like that this is a very strong expectation-type argument?
Dennis: Not quite. But let me say, Richard, I thought that your answer was a very good one, because you do allow the possibility for historical Jesus inside your model.
Richard: Yeah, absolutely.
Dennis: My answer probably isn’t as sophisticated because I come from a different position. If I can’t explain how it came about theologically or mimetically, then I can’t explain those data, then I think that they come from perhaps historical memory. And this brings me to my answer to Doug. Doug, my orientation would be a bit different. I think there are mimetic reasons for the creation of Joseph of Arimathea and Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene and so on because of the mimetic needs that Mark had to create a compelling narrative for Jesus.
But that doesn’t mean that there is not—and I think Richard would agree with this at least potentially—that there is not a what one might call, I suppose, an “active oral tradition,” whether it goes back to Jesus or not, that Paul inherits and that his churches can trade on. So there are places, for example in Romans, where there are very strong parallels, moral parallels in teaching, paraenesis as we call it, between the Q document and what Paul is writing. And he doesn’t ascribe it to Jesus, but he uses these aphorisms as though they’re well known in the community.
Unfortunately, because Paul is not writing a narrative and he’s not writing to a community that needs to know about the things according to his theology, since it’s so oriented—as Richard talks about correctly—to the cross and the resurrection, I just think that we can assume that there’s a lot more cultural capital going around that Paul can evoke without having to appeal to these narratives. But it is striking that the narratives are missing and many of the most significant characters in the Gospel presentation, especially in Mark, are entirely absent in Paul.
Added Note: Here MacDonald explicitly declares his invalid methodology that I called attention to in my previous note: “If I can’t explain how it came about theologically or mimetically, then I can’t explain those data, then I think that they come from perhaps historical memory.” In no way is that a defensible principle of reasoning. Unless he means what he says literally, as in only “perhaps” it is historical, as in, “it’s only possible,” which would again be true, but that does not get him to “it’s probable,” and yet he appears to be deploying exactly that mistake of reasoning.
Doug: So Dennis, history is about figuring out what probably happened in the past, correct?
Dennis: Okay, yeah.
Doug: So, I appreciate what Rick says, a one-in-three chance or 33% chance that Jesus existed in history, because it’s putting a probability on it, on what probably happened in the past. Do you say that you’re 100% confident or convinced that Jesus existed in history? Or do you put a probability on it, like 99, 98?
Dennis: I would put a probability on it of probably 80% [“80/20”]. The issue for me that pushes it away from 100% positive is that you do have this mimetic impulse in the Q document to portray Jesus as the prophet like Moses. But the part that gives me more confidence is that you do have this coherent moral vision that one can understand would have produced a crucifixion. And the crucifixion of Jesus I think one could say is multiply attested. So it’s the kind of moral vision and radicalism of Judaism that could have got him into trouble.
I’ll give you an example. I just got done teaching a course on the Gospel of Matthew and we spent quite a bit of time with Q, and I had an Israeli Jew in class. And several times he says, “If I were a Jew living back then, I would have crucified Jesus too if I had the chance.” So, it’s that. So I don’t think it’s a 100% probability, but if Jesus didn’t exist, then I still would want to know who was the radical Jewish genius that tried to reconceptualize Mosaic Law according to compassion? And if it isn’t Jesus himself, then that other person is the one that I want to esteem, because I am so compelled.
Added Note: As I go on to only partially point out (as we were running out of time), I actually don’t see how Jesus, as depicted in the overlap of Matthew-Luke (and hence what MacDonald means by Q), is teaching anything more radical than the Hillelites or Sadducees or Qumranites, none of whom were “crucified” for teaching such things, by Jews or Romans. So MacDonald’s argument here appears to be both contrary to all evidence, and fatally circular: when he sells his speculations to a student as fact, he can persuade that student to anachronistically apply modern Jewish ideas to conclude that ancient Jews would have succeeded in persuading secular Romans to kill Jesus. I don’t even know where to begin with all the logical errors here.
On the other hand, it is notable that MacDonald allows a 1 in 5 chance Jesus didn’t exist. He will go on to say the other end of his margin of error is a 1 in 10 chance Jesus didn’t exist, but still allows it could be 1 in 5. That’s actually a respectable nod to the possibility and plausibility of mythicism. I think few historicists would dare. So props for that.
Richard: Well, how are the teachings of Jesus any different from the teachings of Hillel?
Dennis: Oh, they’re marvelously different from the teachings of Hillel. Hillel never would have argued that somebody else could be a replacement for Moses. The issue for Hillel is, when you have Mosaic Law, how does one make it, let’s say, more generous and flexible than the School of Shammai?
Added Note: Nowhere in Q does Jesus claim to “replace” Moses. I didn’t catch this at the time, but it’s a weird argument, and I don’t know how MacDonald formulated it, or on what basis. That the authors of Q wanted to depict Jesus this way was precisely their mythologizing framework, not a teaching of Jesus, as elsewhere admitted by MacDonald himself. Indeed the only place, anywhere, that Jesus “goes against” Moses in what one might reconstruct as coming from Q is in his over-strict reading of the Mosaic grounds for divorce, which happens to be identical to that of the entire school of Shammai—who were not accused of “replacing Moses.”
MacDonald does illogically assume any abbreviation of Matthew is “more original” in his reconstruction of Q, so he might side with Luke’s briefer line on divorce that seems even harsher, but that Luke is not abbreviating is a presumption without evidence (and Luke’s version lacks any reference to Moses anyway). It’s otherwise conspicuous that Matthew’s version is identical to existing Rabbinical conservatism. I doubt Matthew is adding. Luke is subtracting. And at best there is no evidence either way, so nothing to hang any confidence on, much less a convoluted argument for historicity built on a stack of unevidenced assumptions.
Richard: Yeah. Just like the teachings on the Sabbath, for example. Hillel taught essentially the same thing Jesus is portrayed as teaching. So there doesn’t really seem to be a difference there.
Dennis: Oh. No, no. Not on that point maybe; but Hillel isn’t going to say that he or somebody in his circle is the new Moses and can say, as Matthew is going to paraphrase, “You have heard it said of old . . . But I say to you . . .” That’s not how Hillel works.
Added Note: I didn’t have time to verify my suspicion here on the fly, but I have since checked, and none of the “you have heard it said of old” sayings do what MacDonald claims here. First, those statements appear only in Matthew, not Luke’s abbreviation, and thus only in the Sermon on the Mount text that MacDonald will, in a moment, contradictorily admit was a post-War redaction that does not even go back to Jesus. Second, none of those teachings in Matthew claims to replace the words of Moses; all declare what Moses said to be true, and challenge only later interpretations that changed what Moses said, and/or add Jesus’s own interpretation of its meaning, thus claiming to give the original intended meaning of Moses, not a replacement. He thus is just doing what the schools of Hillel and Shammai did. There is nothing even radical in this, much less a claim to “replace” Moses. So I really don’t understand what MacDonald is doing at this point.
Richard: Well, what about moral teachings? I mean, because [what you are talking about is] different, because that’s a theology question. So that would be the sectarian difference, the difference between sects. Sects would have different theologies, and so that would be their theological difference. But I thought you were talking about, like, morally radical teachings rather than just some sort of theological concept.
Dennis: No. I think what you find [Jesus’s] moral criticism of the Jewish law goes far beyond anything that you’d find in [his] contemporary Judaism. But let me be really clear: I do not think that the Q document was written by a Christian. It was written by a Jew, but a Jew who was really pushing the envelope for lowering the wall that separated Jews and Gentiles; but still is Jewish. And what followers of Jesus found is that that was a moral vision that they could run with, and then divinize Jesus in a way that the Q document never did, and that certainly Jesus would have been embarrassed by.
Added Note: Contrary to MacDonald’s assertion, for which he gave no examples here, I have never seen anyone demonstrate that any teaching of Jesus went beyond what some Jewish authority or other had already said in that same period, whether coming from Sadducees, Shammaites, Hillelites, Essenes, or Qumranites (and those are just the best-sourced; there were some thirty or so sects of that era, most of whose teachings are unknown to us, rendering impossible any assertion regarding what they did not also teach or say: see The Empty Tomb, pp. 106-10). So this idea that the Gospel Jesus “goes far beyond anything you’d find” elsewhere in Judaism is simply factually unsustainable.
Richard: Okay. So, like, the atoning function of the death of Jesus is not in your Logoi, it’s not in Q you think? I see him nodding. (laughs)
Doug: Yeah. Dennis said something very interesting to me, and I thought, like, “If this Jesus did not exist, then who came up with these moral teachings?” And I guess my question to you, Dennis, is why does it have to be one person? Why couldn’t it have been a group of people?
Dennis: It could be a group of people. But I’m sure that the Q document was written by a single individual who recrafted it. I sometimes have told my students that the real hero of the Q document may be the author and not Jesus, and Jesus may have been the opportunity for the author to show his own radical vision of Judaism. I don’t know if that’s helpful, but it could be that the real hero of the Q document is the author.
Richard: Oh. Yeah. Okay. On that theme, let me ask another question that’s related to this then. A lot of scholars, and Dale Allison most prominently, have argued that the Sermon on the Mount had to have been written after the Jewish War, that it’s actually a post-war text and therefore couldn’t have been written by Jesus, couldn’t have come from Jesus. What’s your take on that perspective?
Dennis: As you know, Richard, the big issue is what does one do with the parallels with the Gospel of Luke? And central to my understanding of the Q document is what I would call “inverted priority,” where a document manifestly written later than the extant sources contains information that is more primitive. And over and over and over again, Luke contains content that’s similar to what one finds in Matthew but in a more primitive version and in a more primitive sequence and with more primitive concerns. I think Dale Allison is one of the finest New Testament scholars we have, so I appreciate you giving attention to him, and he merits that attention. He has not tried to reconstruct the Q document, though he has said some very interesting things about the Q document and holds to a version of the two-document hypothesis. But I think there is way too much information in Luke that’s more primitive than what we find in Matthew that likely comes out of a Q document that is written before the war.
Added Note: MacDonald’s principle here is illogical. It has been abundantly demonstrated abbreviation is as common and likely as expansion. So shorter material is not thereby more likely closer to the original. Many scholars have demonstrated this. See Proving History, “Criterion of Least Distinctiveness,” pp. 181-82. For example, Luke abbreviates Mark frequently. Thus, we already expect him to abbreviate Matthew, to whose text MacDonald already admits Luke had access, or Q, or any other source he may have had. We therefore cannot argue as MacDonald wants. We therefore ought not argue as MacDonald does.
Richard: Okay. I get it. Yeah. I see what you mean by your Q theory, your particular Logoi theory, is really key to your position, because a lot of things, it always lands back there. Whereas I think it seems more obvious to me that Mark wrote, then Matthew wrote, then Luke is just rewriting Matthew. And I think what you call primitive structure is just Luke simplifying Matthew. So that’s a whole separate debate. But yeah, I can see what you mean. Like, if we posit that there was some earlier version of the Sermon on the Mount that has been changed after the war and all we get to see are the changed versions, then that would work as a model. The question then is how do we know that’s what happened as opposed to something else?
Dennis: Well, let me go just a little further if I might, and I’ll just as an aside, I think Luke knew Matthew.
Richard: Oh right. Yeah. I know. You and I have always or have long agreed on that.
Dennis: Yeah. The question is whether Luke knows more than the sources we have, and I would use the principle of inverted priority.
Doug: Some people that are in the chat I think don’t truly understand, Rick, your position on the cosmic Jesus. So do you want to maybe just summarize that? And where do you think this cosmic Jesus actually came from?
Richard: Yeah. As I talk about in On the Historicity of Jesus, I think there’s indications in Philo that there was already, certainly we know for sure that there was already an archangel who had all the attributes that are assigned to Jesus. You could argue over whether he actually was aware that that archangel was already called Jesus. I discuss the evidence in Historicity of Jesus, but we’ll put that aside. All of these peculiar features—firstborn son of God, well, also later the high priest of the celestial temple, [but also] the agent of creation, God’s agent of creation, and all of these other properties (you could go down a list of these peculiar features)—Philo talks about there being this archangel who was the first Adam, the spiritual Adam, the celestial Adam, different from the one that was made out of clay. And when you look at Paul, Paul seems clearly to be talking about the same figure. What has happened, if there was a historical Jesus, what you’d have to say is that very quickly people assumed for one reason or another that this Jesus was that archangel become incarnate.
Now, who thought that up, when it started, that’s a whole separate thing. In my view, we just get rid of the middleman on that one. You just say there wasn’t even a historical Jesus. There was just this archangel. And you had a sect, like the sect at the Dead Sea that’s already talking about [how] the end is going to come anytime now, there’s going to be this celestial Messiah that’s going to descend and do all of these things. If you have these teachings and you’re looking for these things and you realize in scripture you have this revelationary movement, whether it’s inspiration or your subconscious giving you a dream or hallucination, whatever it is, they realize that they can explain and solve a lot of problems in Judaism by supposing that the Messiah actually did begin the end of the world through his incarnation and death. And that atoning function eliminates the need for the temple cult. So you can get rid of that whole problem of the physical violence that was centered around the temple cult, the corruption that was centered around the temple cult. So you can actually take God directly to the people this way, and you could gain salvation through the atoning sacrifice of this Messiah.
So if you had this vision, that this event had occurred, it would be very analogous to Satan’s war against Heaven, right? This is a historical event in Jewish theology. Satan rebelled against God and was cast down. In the actual beliefs of the time, he wasn’t cast down into hell, he was cast down into the air, the sky. He lives up there and manipulates the world through demons and stuff up in the lower heavens, as they say. That’s well-established Jewish lore. So you have this historical event that people believe in, that didn’t really happen, but it’s happened in the celestial sphere, this sort of event.
[That’s] my theory—and it isn’t mine [really], this is actually Earl Doherty, to my knowledge the first to really clearly articulate it, so I call it “the Doherty thesis,” although I think he added too much stuff to it, so I simplify it, strip it down to its bare minimum. But the Doherty thesis is that this is what originally happened—that someone had, Cephas for example, had this revelation that this event had occurred, this other event that reverses the fall of Satan. And this is the actual, the voluntary sacrifice of the Messiah. He finds it confirmed in scripture. He’s got this pesher that he’s constructing or using. And we see that in Paul. He says, the crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection of Jesus are all confirmed in scripture, they’re learned from scripture, and then people see him. That’s the order of events you see in the creed in Paul: [what you see in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8] is that people see Jesus only after this event has occurred. So it’s a celestial event of some kind that was not known and not seen by anyone. As even Paul says in Romans 16:25-26, that it was hidden until just now, and only known through the scriptures and revelations that this happened. So that’s the celestial Jesus hypothesis that I think is the one that most likely competes.
Doug: Can I sum it up as saying that… you guys have heard the antichrist, a lot of the conservative Christians talk about the antichrist coming. Was Jesus the anti-Lucifer to solve the sin problem?
Richard: Very much, right? He’s depicted that way in every respect, right? He’s reversed [Satan’s cosmic drama]. And you see that in 1 Corinthians 15. The whole discourse in 1 Corinthians 15 is about Jesus, how his act is going to reverse and overpower Satan. It’s all [about] “How do you overcome all the sin that Satan brought into the world?” and death particularly, [since] Satan is blamed for death. And yeah, so Jesus is the anti-Satan.
He’s also the anti-Isaac in a way, because when Isaac, that is, when Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac, God said, “Okay, stop. I’ll let you substitute an animal,” and that began the Yom Kippur, the annual atonement sacrifice. You sacrifice this animal. It’s a substitutionary sacrifice, substituted for Isaac the son of Abraham, his firstborn son. Jesus in this theology is the firstborn son, who’s being substituted back in for the animal. That’s why his sacrifice actually lasts forever. You don’t have to repeat it every year. And I’m practically quoting Hebrews 9 here. Basically Hebrews 9 explains this in detail, the theology of it. That’s the underlying theology. And my view, the Doherty thesis view, is that the Hebrews theology is actually the origin of the faith. It’s not a later development. Now, of course, the mainstream view is that the “Hebrews” view is the later development mapped onto a historical Jesus, and those are the two competing hypotheses that you have.
Doug: I want to get Dennis in here. Dennis, what you just heard from Rick, is this all nonsense to you? Or how much of this do you agree with?
Dennis: Well, I’m going to ask Richard a question first just to get a little more clarity. But for everyone, there can’t be any doubt in my view that Paul is interacting with various mythological constructions on the meaning of Jesus, and some of them are very close to what one finds in Philo. And certainly for Paul, the issue is in what way is the death and resurrection of Jesus a cosmic event and what is the benefit of it? The way Philo wants to talk about [that related figure] often, not always but often, is in the context of a first and a second Adam, so that the first Adam is created in God’s likeness and it’s kind of the best state of the human. The second Adam is the Adam that is created out of flesh, and it’s the way that humans are now, and sin came into the world and death. And Richard’s quite right in appealing to Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians 15 as a corrective of that. The last enemy to be conquered is death. But that’s [not just] after the death of Jesus, but with his return presumably.
But Paul feels somewhat uncomfortable with that because he wants to affirm the physicality of Jesus’s resurrection. Although I should be careful. It’s not physicality. It’s embodiment that he’s more interested in. But it’s a spiritual body. So this is a very different kind of mythology than the ones that inform the Gospel creation. That is, they come more out of Greek philosophy, if you will Middle Platonism, which I know Richard knows quite a bit about. And this is I think a topic that gets overlooked by many conservative interpreters of Paul. There is in fact this heavy Jewish mystical overlay to the interpretation of Jesus that centers on Jesus’s [sacrificial] event as a cosmic event and is often related to the first and the second Adam.
But I think in some cases, one can see that Paul feels a little uncomfortable about that and is interested in not so much physicality but embodiment, and more of a connection with traditional Judaism than is sometimes given. But I’d be interested in Richard’s response to that. I think that there is a lot to be said about the Platonic parallels in the Pauline circle. I’m not sure Paul always is comfortable with it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to say that the very idea of Jesus was generated from it.
Richard: Yeah. Actually, I think Paul’s theology is eclectic, and I think this is one thing a lot of people who talk about ancient philosophy miss, is that actually eclecticism was much more popular than specific sects. People would pick and choose, like a salad bar, from different philosophies. And when you look in Paul, Paul has a lot of Aristotelian and Stoic ideas in there as well. And there have been scholars who have published articles on these points too. So I think there is a lot of Middle Platonism, and theologians like Philo and Paul definitely loved Middle Platonism because it was very friendly to religious people in a way that its exact opposite [wasn’t]—which was “atomism,” you know, Epicureanism and other atomist philosophies, [which] were very unfriendly to religions. So they picked less from those philosophies, but picked more from the theology-friendly ones. And that [included] Stoicism, which had [much of this already], like, the whole theology of the Holy Spirit, that’s very Stoic. It comes right out of Stoic theology, throughout Paul and in other Christian writings. But they combine these things, they bring them together. So yeah, I do think definitely they’re getting ideas from this. But these ideas might have already entered Judaism and the Jewish sect that became Christianity before it was Christian. I think these ideas were already flowing into Judaism long before, and Philo’s a representative of that, in the Diaspora at least.
But I’ll add, I don’t see Paul being uncomfortable with the theology of the atonement or any of that stuff. I find, when I read 1 Corinthians 15 for example, all I see is frustration with the people he’s arguing with, that he’s very annoyed that they would deny that there is a resurrection, which seems to be what he’s attacking or dealing with, or [else] deny that there was a resurrection with a body. It does seem that it’s denying resurrection, but it might have been they were denying a body, and he found that very annoying. And there are a lot of reasons why they were defending, or rather why he wants to defend the idea, “No, no, no. We’re going to have a super-great body. It’s going to be wonderful. It’ll last forever.” And I think it’s very similar to what you read Origen, the 3rd century Christian scholar, where he makes [the same] point. I’m paraphrasing, but he says, “The person might be a disembodied entity, but you can’t live or be alive [without being] manifested in a body.”
That ties into [it all. When] you look at Paul, he appears to be an annihilationist. He [believes the dead vanish]. [There aren’t] really any references to hell in Paul. It looks like his belief is that if you don’t get saved, you just stay asleep forever. Now that’s disputed and people can argue over it, but it would fit this idea that only the saved are going to be given a resurrection body, not the damned, and that means only the saved are going to wake up to eternal life. And then it looks like in his view that that’s not even possible without a body. Like, if you’re disembodied, you’re asleep. You still exist, like an idea in the mind of God. That’s Origen’s point. It’s like you’re an idea in the mind of God, but if he doesn’t stamp you into a body, you can’t see anything or experience anything or think. So a body is essential to Paul’s theology. And so his solution, of course—and this might not be his solution, it might be the one he inherited, but in any case—is that “No, no, we’re going to get a great body. It’s going to be a wonderful super body. It’s going to be much better than this messy body of flesh that we don’t like, but it’s still going to be a body.” And to him, he’s not uncomfortable with this. To him, he’s annoyed by people who would think that this isn’t true.
Dennis: Well, I can’t wait for a new body.
Richard: (laughs) Yeah. No, his description of the new body sounds fantastic. I want one too. (laughs)
Doug: This is a very simple question for both of you. Is there anyone who identifies themselves in history, who they are, where they’re from, when they wrote it, that they themselves wrote that they saw Jesus in flesh?
Dennis: Yes, there is. Now the issue then is can you trust them? And that’s why I think Papias’s the Elder John is so interesting. He says that this Aristion and the Elder John were mathêtês, they were disciples, but not members of the Twelve. And the author of the Johannine epistles writes, “That which we have seen and heard” and so on. I’m of the opinion, as are many others, that the “we” there has to do with other elders, the presbuteroi, which means basically “the old guys.”
Added Note: Again, in no quote we have from him does Papias say Aristion and the Elder John were “not members of the Twelve,” none of the Johannine epistles internally identifies their actual author as John (or even a disciple), and the opening lines from 1 John that MacDonald is here referring to is manifestly a reference to the mythological appearance narrative in John 20 and corresponding introduction at John 1. And “elders” is not a synonym for apostles or witnesses. It just means people who are older; it’s a reference to rank according to the privilege of age, not (so far as we can find) to how long they’ve been in the church, much less to their having been with it from the earliest days. I should have taken the time to call out all of these mistakes on air. Historicists should not be allowed to continue making them.
Richard: When was this written?
Dennis: Well, 1 John probably was written in the early 90s and seems to know the Gospel of Matthew. But here’s someone who argues, an external person says he was one of the followers of Jesus and that he was still living when Papias was writing his stuff.
Richard: Well, that’s part of the problem with that, though.
Dennis: And the author of the Johannine epistles says that he is the Elder, and in 1 John, he says, “That which we”—that is the presbuteroi probably, the elders, those who are old—“have seen.” They’re handing on to tradition. So I think that’s a pretty straightforward answer to the question.
Richard: Yeah. I think it’s quite plain that the Johannine passage is referring to the resurrection of Jesus, that they’re talking about they handled and saw the risen Jesus, not the historical Jesus. Even if there was a historical Jesus, the passage I think is referring to visions or experiences of the risen Jesus. And for that and many reasons, I think the letter is a forgery. I agree with all the scholars who side on that side, that this is a polemical series of letters written after the Gospels to sort of defend the faith from a particular perspective. I don’t think it comes from a real John or a real disciple. And it doesn’t even claim to. The letters don’t even claim that they come from a disciple. But even if you take the “we” passage [in them] as [somehow] claiming that, I think that’s the same thing as the Book of Acts making stuff up—or 2 Peter, for example, claiming to be written by Peter, when it wasn’t. So I don’t think we can trust that.
Dennis: I think that’s a forced interpretation. In my book Dionysian Gospel, I argue that the epistles surely are earlier than the gospel. They’re not later. And this has been shown I think by a number of scholars, and that the author is claiming to be a living witness going back to what they heard and saw and so on. And then…
Richard: That’s to the risen Jesus though, right?
Dennis: …there’s not an interest in the resurrection of Jesus until later.
Richard: Oh really?
Dennis: What comes first are ethical teachings that in many cases have similarities to what you’d find in the Q document, for example.
Richard: Okay. I’m not convinced. I don’t see any reason to believe that those letters are authentic and not forged. But that then would be the only instance of someone who is an eyewitness to Jesus writing about it. Yeah.
Doug: And Dennis is nodding yes, that that would be the only one. But here’s my problem, Dennis. You’re 70 years old, right? Roughly? If you would have lived back then without antibiotics, do you think you would still be alive to write about Jesus?
Dennis: This is one of the amazing things about the Johannine tradition. They valued this person’s memory such that they said, “Jesus will return before this old guy dies,” so that when he does die, then it creates a crisis for the Johannine community.
Richard: Where is that? Where do people say that?
Dennis: Well, it’s in the epilogue to the Gospel of John, that Jesus…
Richard: Oh, no. Okay. No.
Dennis: Yeah, Jesus did not say [this John] would not die until Jesus returned, but “If it’s my will that he be alive when I return, what is that to you, Peter?”
Richard: Is that the only place that that tradition is attested? Do you know of other places?
Dennis: Well, the very fact that Papias talks about John as a presbyter, as one of the ancients…
Richard: That doesn’t connect to the Gospel of John.
Dennis: That he was still a living voice that was transmitting the teachings of Jesus I think has to be taken with some credence.
Richard: Yeah. I mean, Papias never connects the John that he’s talking about with any letters, or with the Gospel, and I side with the scholars, and there have been several who have published on this, that the person that they’re talking about in John 21 in Lazarus, not John. And there’s a real big, I mean, a really good literary case for this that I documented in On the Historicity of Jesus.
Dennis: No, I would certainly disagree with that, and I’ve written a lot on it. But the other is that according to Eusebius, Papias knows 1 John and he does not know the Gospel of John. So…
Richard: Yeah, but [Eusebius] also says that [Papias] was confused which John he was talking about too, so…
Dennis: Well, because Papias says there are two Johns…
Richard: Yeah, and I think Eusebius says that there are problems there as to which John is who, and whether Papias is correct. Eusebius didn’t trust Papias.
Dennis: No, that’s right. For sure.
Richard: [I agree] we shouldn’t trust him.
Dennis: I would trust him on that.
Added Note: Just so you don’t miss it, note that when MacDonald says Eusebius said Papias knew 1 John, actually Eusebius does not say Papias knew that letter as written by any John. Eusebius is simply identifying some quotation in Papias as coming from the book that by Eusebius’s time was attributed to someone named John. We therefore cannot actually say Papias “knew” 1 John as being by anyone named John, much less John the Elder, or even any Elder (1 John never says it is by an “Elder”; only 2 and 3 John do).
It should also be noted that these kinds of attributions are also sometimes wrong, i.e. it may well be Papias was not quoting 1 John, but that Eusebius merely assumed he had gotten something from it, when it was actually the other way around, or Papias and 1 John shared a common vocabulary or source material. Without the actual quote from Papias, we cannot know. And what we cannot know, we ought not assert.
I should also point out that the unnamed immortal disciple referenced in John 21 nearly everyone but fundamentalists agrees is a mythical, made up character; and obviously is. I’m astonished to see MacDonald trying to argue he really existed. This is a truly bizarre position for him to take. It is also not clear what MacDonald means when he says “I would trust him [meaning, Papias] on that.” On what? Nothing just discussed is actually in Papias.
Richard: So yeah, I think this is all complicated. There are all kinds of problems with this evidence. Yeah.
Doug: Well, even for people who believe in the historical Jesus, it is a question mark that I think they have to have in their head. Like, at best, we have one, maybe two people saying who they are, and even the example you gave…
Richard: Documents. Yeah.
Doug: Yeah. They identify themselves as someone who is putting their reputation on the line and saying, “I saw the fleshy Jesus.” And that, it’s very rare. But I got to ask this question, because it’s from someone who donates money to me once in a while so I can take my kids to Applebee’s. (laughs) Shane Zolin (sp?). He asks a long question, so I’m going to try and summarize it, and forgive me, Shane, if I butcher your real question. But how much do you think the Roman government played a part, if any, in the development of the gospels, the promulgation of it? Do you buy any of, some of the theories out there that [Rome was involved]?
Richard: Is this a question directed at me?
Doug: It’s for both of you.
Richard: Okay. Alright. This sounds like a Joseph Atwill question. I don’t [buy that stuff, no].
Doug: Sort of. I think so. But why don’t you go first, Rick? Do you think there’s anything to it at all?
Richard: I mean, obviously, No. No, I don’t. It’s called the Atwill thesis. I’ve written on it, “Atwill’s Cranked-up Jesus.” You can read my article on why I think this is an example of what I consider like bad mythicism, where it’s very conspiracy-theory-based, it’s very poorly argued, it’s seeing all kinds of things “in the tea leaves” as it were. But for people who want to see my take on the Joseph Atwill thesis, just look up “Atwill’s Cranked-up Jesus” on my blog and you’ll see why I don’t think this has any credence.
But his theory, and I mean his theory which goes back to the non-true “Piso conspiracy theory”—a lot of people forget that there was a real Piso conspiracy theory, which involved the assassination of Nero, but the other Piso conspiracy theory that was made up I think in the 19th century—was that the entire New Testament was a forgery by the Roman government to pacify the Jews and to trick them into being Christians. That’s kind of Atwill’s thesis as well. I think it’s patently absurd.
Doug: But you know there’s one argument that kind of makes sense to me, just a very common-sense type argument, and it’s that one verse in the New Testament that says, “Give unto Caesar what’s due to Caesar” or something like that. That’s something a Roman person would write.
Richard: Well, in Romans 13, Paul spends an entire chapter arguing how you should be obedient to the authorities. So yeah. No, I think one thing is true, is that the sect very much wanted to get along and to create its own sort of government within a government, and not get into conflicts with the political authorities. So yeah, they very much wanted these things to be calm. Like “No, no, don’t skip your taxes. Don’t get into tiffs with the government. No, no, just be obedient. The end times will come. Don’t worry.” And that’s what the whole “turning the other cheek” thing is—“Someone sues you, just give them whatever they want. Someone takes your coat, let them have it. If someone strikes you, just let them strike you, because it doesn’t matter. The world’s going to end anytime now. Why risk sinning and losing salvation? Just endure everything that’s going to happen and then you’ll get to Heaven really quickly.” And meanwhile, they want to create this sort of ideal socialist utopia within their own community where they’re all helping each other, where they’re all equals, and so on.
So this is coming from below. It’s not the government, the Roman government trying to impose this on Jews. I don’t even know how the hell they would pull that off. No, this is a faction of the Jews who are tired of the political violence and tired of the corruption even in their own religion, even in their own communities, and are looking for a way out, and a way to actually become more harmonized with the surrounding community and await the end of the world. So all that stuff is coming from them, and they have very good motivations for wanting to promote it that way.
Doug: Dennis, did you have any thoughts on that?
Dennis: I’ll go ahead. I’ll restrict my comments to just a couple of things. First, I agree with Richard, [at least] 90% of what he said. I think that hypothesis is nonsense. The second, I read Romans 13 somewhat differently, because immediately after that passage, Paul then says, “the form of this world is passing away.” So it’s not that it’s favorable to Rome, but that the time is growing short, that he’s an apocalypticist and there are more important things to worry about than whether you should pay taxes.
Richard: Yeah. I want to emphasize, that’s kind of what I meant too, is that they didn’t want to get into conflicts with the government—“Just ride it out. Like, don’t break the law and stuff, because that’s what’s going to create trouble for you. It doesn’t matter if the political forces are against you in any sense. Just endure it, because the end is coming anytime now.”
Dennis: Well, if I might, I’ll just add this, and it’s a shameless plug for a book that I’ve written called Luke and the Politics of Homeric Imitation: Luke-Acts as a Rival to Vergil’s Aeneid. And one might paraphrase it as Luke’s construal of the Kingdom of God as a rival to the Roman Empire, not in a revolutionary way—we usually think of it with insurgency—but rather as a rival social-religious movement that similarly has a manifest destiny to end up in Rome with the merging of two peoples, and that Vergil and Luke imitate the same Homeric passages over and over again, but Luke does it in order to show that the Christian tradition is a better exemplar of Roman values under the Augustan age, such as bringing peace, giving prosperity, having God as a benefactor, cooperating, even to a certain extent freedom of women. So my alternative to the thesis that Rome is responsible for the New Testament is that it’s responsible for the New Testament only insofar as the Empire became a foil against which Christians became crafters of their narrative.
Richard: I agree with all of that. I think that’s all correct.
Doug: Okay. This is going to be like a lightning round. I just want thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Richard: Okay, yes. Right, right. Okay, wait. Let me… I have to figure out where my thumbs are. Okay, there we go. (laughs)
Doug: I’ll start off easy. Adam and Eve literally existed. Oh, you got to move your… (Dennis and Richard both give thumbs-down) Yeah, there you go. Okay. (laughs)
Doug: Okay. Abraham existed. Move your hand closer to your face. (Dennis and Richard both give thumbs-down) There you go. Okay, so both of you don’t believe Abraham existed.
Moses existed. (Dennis and Richard both give thumbs-down) Oh wow.
Twelve disciples existed. Twelve. (Richard gives thumbs-down and Dennis gives a sideways thumb)
Richard: Not “disciples.” (laughs)
Doug: Oh, okay. So Dennis is not sure.
Richard: Oh, okay. Yeah. (now Richard gives a sideways thumb) I could do that too. I could do that too if we say “apostles,” original apostles. But if we say “disciples,” then no, I think [not] (Richard gives thumbs-down again).
Doug: Okay. Original apostles, 12 original apostles existed. Does that change your answer? (Dennis and Richard both give sideways thumbs)
Richard: Yeah. I mean there [was] “a twelve,” but were they the only apostles? There were more than twelve [apostles]. So yeah, that’s a hard one to do. I don’t know how to answer that one.
Doug: Paul existed. (Dennis and Richard both give thumbs-up) You both agree on that one. Okay. So it looks like you guys are exactly the same on everything except for Jesus. (laughs)
Richard: (laughs) Not everything, but I don’t think that was a fair (question).
Doug: But on who existed. Yeah, who existed.
Richard: Oh, on who existed and who didn’t. Maybe, yeah. At least 99 I guess, 99% [agreement].
Doug: What I learned from this, which was very interesting—and correct me if I’m wrong, Dennis—but when I asked you that probability question, which is a historian-type question, did I hear you right? You said you’re 80% convinced Jesus existed and you’re leaving yourself 20% wiggle room?
Dennis: Maybe 90/10, something like that. I wish we had better external evidence. I think a certain amount of humility is necessary by all historical judgement, and otherwise if I said 100%, it more likely is coming out of a pre-critical preference, maybe even a faith statement. No, I’m pretty sure Jesus existed and I’m certainly appreciative of whoever it was that gave us the moral vision of an alternative Judaism that’s representative in the Gospels, especially in Q.
Doug: Well, I’m going to hold you to that original 80% number so I can say this, that really you…
Richard: (laughs) 80 to 90, that’s just margin of error.
Doug: Like, because Rick says 33%, so really you’re only 47 percentiles off, I mean different, which is less than half. So that’s progress. Well, I’m scared that Rick’s phone’s going to blow up if we go much longer, so…
Richard: It’s doing fine, but you’re right, we do need to wrap it up.
Doug: I want to give you guys, let’s say, 60 seconds to say whatever you want to say, plug whatever you want to plug, and then we’ll close it off in prayer. No, I’m kidding. (chuckles) Dennis, why don’t you go first?
Dennis: I very much appreciate, Doug, you and Cam putting this together. Richard, I consider you a worthy intellectual companion, and I appreciate this conversation. I want to go back to the first thing I said the last time. I consider myself an FOCH, a Frequently Outraged Christian Humanist. And I prefer that to saying that I’m a Christian believer or that I’m an atheist. I don’t think that there is a God, but I do think there is a Jesus, and I don’t think to be skeptical about God requires us to have the same amount of skepticism that I think Richard is giving.
I think the positive thing about this discussion for me, Richard, is that we can have this discussion on the other side of recognizing the very heavy creative, mimetic, literary process that went into giving us the Jesus of the Gospels. The difference is, I think one can mine Jesus from the Gospels we have, and I think you would be willing to mine down to tradition but would have much more suspicion about getting to bedrock Jesus in that excavation.
Added Note: Note that I have never said “to be skeptical about God requires us to have the same amount of skepticism” of a historical Jesus. To the contrary, I have very conspicuously argued the opposite. That we doubt historicity because of our commitment to atheism is a false motive often attributed to us by historicists, born of some sort of naive folk psychology historicists seem overly fond of, rather than actually checking if it’s what any of us argue.
Doug: Thanks, Dennis. Rick?
Richard: Yeah. I have to praise Dennis MacDonald’s work too. Like, every book he’s ever written is awesome, so I’ve benefited from a lot, learned a lot of methodology as well as just literary analysis and the way he deconstructs texts and everything. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in all of them, but I do think they’re valuable and important works, so I highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in studying this stuff.
For myself, I’ve got… for those who are interested in this subject, I do once or twice a year teach a course online. Actually I teach a course online every month on either history or philosophy, different subjects, but I do one specifically on the historicity of Jesus where we actually look for the best arguments for and against. And in fact this whole debate is going to create a new document that I’ll be using for that in the future, because I think we’ve actually gained some ground here and learned some things and stuff, so I think it’s kind of cool. So for people who are interested in that, look out for that if you want to really get in there and participate and really dig into the sources and things like that. Based on my book, of course, On the Historicity of Jesus, which does a complete comparison of historicity versus what I think is the only viable theory of non-historicity. For people who really want to dig into that debate, that book right now is the one to get and to start with. And I’ve written some other things and stuff related to that.
But also I’ve [helped] develop an app, an application for both Android and iPhone called CHRESTUS. It’s very much now still in kind of like the larval stage. We’re waiting for a new upgrade where we can improve it considerably. But we’re going to keep improving it over time. But what it has in it, it has two things that are really cool. One is, the goal is, to have every argument for and against the historicity of Jesus included in there so you can actually go through very quickly, see what the argument is and what the response is from the other side. And we’ve only got maybe about 20% of that built out now, but we’re building it out more and more, and it’s going to keep growing and growing.
And the other thing is that it has a Bayesian calculator in it, so if you hate math and want to do Bayesian analysis of things where you actually assign probabilities to things, and it asks simple plain-English questions, “What do you think the probability of this is?” and so on, then you can build it out for any set of evidence. You can even use it for any argument besides historicity, but it’s in there for this. You can actually construct a Bayesian argument without even realizing that you’re doing it, and it will actually do the math for you and tell you, like, “Well, if you think the probabilities of these things are thus, then you have to conclude the probability of the conclusion is this.” So the calculator is in there, it’s expandable, you can actually add items of evidence or take them away for anything.
So both of those features are in CHRESTUS. That app is on Android and iPhone. And, like I said, right now it’s larval. You can get in there, you can use it, tinker around, but it’s going to even get better over time. We’re going to keep adding stuff and improving the structure and all of that.
Doug: Thanks, Rick. I want to thank both of you. This has been a tremendous experience for me. I respect both of you tremendously for the work you’ve done, and I highly encourage people who are watching, even those fundamentalist Christians that I sometimes rail against, I encourage you to buy their books or read their material, because at the least, you can get a sense of what someone who believes things opposite to you, try to understand where they’re coming from.