Dennis MacDonald and I have discussed the question of Jesus’s historicity many times over the years. These are among the most important kinds of discussions to have, as MacDonald isn’t a Christian apologist and actually agrees the Gospels are almost entirely mythographical and not works of history. So we can cut past most of the baloney and get right to brass tacks: what really can we say about a historical Jesus when all we have about him is mythology and theology? I have written about this before: in Historicity News, regarding MacDonald’s brief discussion of the historicity question in his book Two Shipwrecked Gospels; and analyzing our first debate on the PineCreek channel in Is Jesus Wholly or Only Partly a Myth? The Carrier-MacDonald Exchange. And now, recently, we engaged in a reprise on the Mythvision channel in Did Jesus Exist: Dr. Richard Carrier vs. Dr. Dennis R. MacDonald – Mythicist vs Historicist.
By Richard Carrier, PhD
MacDonald maintains historicity in spite of his (unwarrantedly controversial) minimalist stance on the Gospels—a stance that, IMO, is substantially correct; not only in his identification of Evangelical transvaluation of Greco-Roman literature, but also his notion of the same with respect to the Greco-Jewish Septuagint. I don’t agree with every detail or instance of his claims in these regards, but I am sure he is right on the overall model of what the Gospel authors were doing: taking story models from both the Jewish scriptures and pagan literature and “rewriting them” into “better” stories about Jesus, with the intent of culturally replacing them. We both agree the Gospels are fundamentally mythical texts (see my demonstration of this in Chapter 10 of On the Historicity of Jesus). So how can MacDonald be so sure there even was a Jesus? What makes Jesus more arguably historical than any other mythical hero, from Moses to Osiris to Hercules? That’s what we talked about, and our discussion ranged across both factual questions as well as methodological. All of it interesting.
Part One: Gnosticism?
After I summarized my position, MacDonald launched the discussion with a question (near the end of minute 17): “What [do] you understood to have happened, in the Pauline context, of what you call ‘the revelatory Jesus’ and [do] you find any support for that view in the Christian Gnostic texts?” I more or less answered that I do not believe Gnosticism was ever really a thing (see Gnosticism Didn’t Exist), and I use none of their texts in my analysis in OHJ because they are all late and derivative (even the Ascension of Isaiah, should one even consider that “Gnostic” in some sense, though in its earliest likely redaction a rare case of an actually independent text, barely featured in my probability calculations); and that the “religion” of Christianity began when Peter (Cephas) had a vision or dream (or claimed to) in which an archangel appeared to him calling itself Jesus and expounding the gospel, after which more “apostles” (eventually to include Paul) had the same revelation (or said they did) in order to claim their own leadership positions in the Church—as those “sent by” this celestial Lord Jesus (the meaning of the word apostle).
MacDonald was stymied. I think he expected me to cite the Gnostics in support of my thesis, as they were less hostile to the idea of revelation as a source of knowledge than the Orthodoxists were (here using “Orthodoxist” only in the political, not the literal, sense, as I define it in OHJ, p. 64). Because MacDonald wanted to point out that “those Gnostics,” and he singled out the views represented in the early medieval manuscripts recovered at Nag Hammadi, “don’t deny that Jesus was a historical person, but rather that it’s like you said, that Jesus takes on a human form,” like, wears a fake body, but still interacting in Earth history (he here seems to mean Docetism, not Gnosticism; though Docetism has a similar problem). But as I had noted, all “Gnostic” texts he could possibly mean are in fact late derivations from the canonical Gospels and teachings, and MacDonald quite agreed. So they are on the wrong side of “historical causality” here: they are a product of the historicizing pedigree, not a predecessor to it. So they are of no use in reconstructing the origins of Christianity. Anything we find earlier than that (from 1 Clement to the Ascension of Isaiah) conspicuously lacks any clear references to a historical Jesus.
Indeed, even the earliest polemics against what MacDonald might mean (i.e. extant responses to texts we have no examples of because they were all destroyed, long before anything at Nag Hammadi was written) seem to indicate their opponents then were denying historicity (claiming Gospel stories of Jesus meeting people and doing things on Earth were mythical), not affirming it. See my analysis in Jesus from Outer Space of Ignatius (and 2 Peter) as the earliest known examples of such attacks (pp. 160-63); attacks on sects of Christianity so early we have barely any other evidence of them but this (though I go more into 2 Peter elsewhere; cf. OHJ, Chapter 8.12).
MacDonald then cites (around minute 22) an old blog article by atheist historian of Christianity R. Joseph Hoffmann, titled “Controversy, Mythicism, and the Historical Jesus” (2012), as somehow crediting to me a reliance on (or indeed even misinterpretation of!) so-called “Gnostic” Gospels. But as I then noted, that was written two whole years before I even published my mythicist thesis—and the same year but still before I published my methodological treatise, Proving History—so it can’t in any way be responding to anything I actually said or wrote on this subject. It’s the other way around: my peer reviewed books Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus are the refutation of articles like Hoffmann’s.
I also noted to MacDonald that this is when Hoffmann had started going insane and was writing delusional articles like this in which he attributed to me weird things I never said, citing books of mine that aren’t about or even posit mythicism and don’t discuss “Gnostic” Gospels at all. Contrary to Hoffmann’s dribbling insanity, Not the Impossible Faith (the only book he cites as supposedly saying any of the things I didn’t say) actually assumes Jesus existed. That Bart Ehrman made the same weird mistake in his book Did Jesus Exist? tells me two things: (1) Ehrman also never read Not the Impossible Faith (and I have further evidence confirming that) and (2) Ehrman must have instead read Hoffmann and only gullibly trusted that lunatic to correctly describe the contents of Not the Impossible Faith—rather than actually reading anything I actually wrote on the matter. Welcome to the world of historicity apologetics. Even secular scholars are acting like this. There is a reason I had to write How to Successfully Argue Jesus Existed (or Anything Else in the World).
Nevertheless, around minute 24, MacDonald sidetracks into quoting Hoffmann accusing mythicists of “not understand[ing] the complexity of the literature and its context” (which he provided no examples of, and which cannot apply to me, as any such defects would have been flagged by peer review and corrected), of being “heavily influenced by conspiracy theories, that are even more incredible than the story they’re trying to debunk” (which he provided no examples of, and which cannot apply to me, as my peer reviewed thesis carefully rejects all conspiracy-style theories and relies on none: OHJ, index, “conspiracy theories”—yes, that’s even in the index), and of “trying to merely be outrageous … which,” MacDonald added as an aside (referring to me), “you have been accused of” (which he again provided no examples of; MacDonald’s accusation of my insincerity here was itself, ironically, insincere). But not a single one of these points has any relevance to my thesis and thus were all mere time-wasting non sequiturs in this discussion.
Meanwhile, Hoffmann’s claim that “the idea that Jesus never existed requires the concoction of a myth more incredible than anything found in the Bible” was simply never proved, here or anywhere, by Hoffmann or MacDonald, as I went on to point out. Indeed, Hoffmann’s rant that MacDonald here repeated was solely about my book Not the Impossible Faith, which contained no arguments for mythicism at all (much less any of these that MacDonald references Hoffmann complaining about). That’s how off the tracks of reality Hoffmann was by then. I’m quite certain he was literally insane when he wrote that article. The only relevance all this could possibly have here, as I pointed out, is to bracket out the actual conspiracy-mongering amateurs who try to push genuinely implausible mythicist theories. But as I’m not one of them, this just wasted clock time.
Part Two: Q?
Around minute 23 MacDonald says he chose Hoffmann as a launching point because he’s an atheist, thus showing “there’s no necessary connection between” atheism and mythicism, a conclusion with which I have long agreed (it’s even explicitly stated in my preface to OHJ, xi-xiv). And Hoffmann also argues, in effect, that, as MacDonald puts it around minute 24, “The Gospels retain a stubborn historical view of Jesus,” preserving “reliable information about his life and teachings” that was not “engulfed by any of the conditions under which they were composed.” That has of course long been MacDonald’s thesis, but I have refuted it multiple times now. It simply isn’t true. There is no information in the Gospels about Jesus that we have any good reason to trust is authentic. And in this exchange, oddly, MacDonald did not even list any (see my discussion of his previous lists). He decided to argue a different tack this time, something to the effect that “Q existed; some of its contents cannot be explained but as history; ergo Jesus has some real history,” albeit MacDonald admits, so little real history as to be of little comfort to historians who want to reconstruct a biography of the man.
Nevertheless, I mentioned the argument MacDonald was alluding to, as it derives from Hoffmann as well, and I framed it as a kind of Argument from Real People, e.g. “persons said to have named siblings and to have come from obscure towns usually existed, ergo Jesus probably existed,” and pointed out the premise is simply false: “if you pick any mythical person—Osiris, Romulus, Dionysus, Moses—they all have the same things written about them; they have named siblings, or they have weird towns they come from,” or both, and so on. So “there’s no valid argument” here. Mythical people often have mythical siblings; that’s normal, indeed particularly in Jewish myth-tradition. It therefore cannot be evidence someone existed. Likewise the obscurity of any town they might be said to come from; even if the town existed. Proculus, the witness to the glorious resurrection and gospel of Romulus, is said to have hailed from Alba Longa, a real but rather obscure mountain town near Rome. Nevertheless Proculus almost certainly never existed: his name, a derivation of Latin words at the root of the English word “proclamation,” describes what he does in the myth, a dead giveaway for a made-up person. So this is simply a dead-end as arguments go. I really don’t understand why any historian would keep attempting to use it.
In any event, MacDonald breaks into his new Argument from Q around minute 30. “As you know,” he reminds me (and the audience), “I’m a big believer in Q; and the Q document is extremely important,” if it existed, “because it rivals in time the authentic Pauline epistles,” though he admits “it’s difficult to date some of this stuff,” and all he can affirm really is that “it certainly is independent” of the Gospel of Mark, which forms half of the structure of all subsequent Gospels in the canon, the other half supposedly going back to this hypothesized “Q” document. Which he just admitted he can’t even date with any certainty (in Two Shipwrecked Gospels MacDonald argues it must predate Mark because he thinks Mark was aware of it, but his arguments on these points are highly conjectural; and “before Mark” does not entail “in the time of Paul” anyway, not least because we cannot fix a secure date for Mark either, only that it’s at least a decade or more after Paul, who we do know wrote in the 50s). Everything after this point argues from suppositions and conjectures MacDonald reaches in his book Two Shipwrecked Gospels about the specific content of Q that in my opinion are highly uncertain or even outright doubtful—even if Q existed. And I am fairly certain it did not. (Dennis MacDonald and Mark Goodacre have since debated Q on the MythVision channel as well, though I have not had time to view it.)
Based on MacDonald’s conjectured reconstruction of the contents of Q, “Jesus is clearly nothing more than a mortal, who is selected at his baptism to be God’s agent, primarily to be a new Moses” and “change Jewish law, to make it more compassionate,” so “his primary opponents are not Gnostics” (needless to say, IMO—as Gnostics didn’t exist) and “they’re not Judaizers” (obviously, as it is Q that would be promoting the Judaizing sect of Christianity, not opposing it) but “are simply Pharisees who load up legal burdens on people and make life unbearable,” by which MacDonald must mean Shamaites, a sect of and not simply the Pharisees. What he means by Q is principally Matthew; MacDonald conjectures we should add a few things from Luke, and a bit of Mark, maybe subtract some things Matthew adds to Mark, but the vast bulk of his or any Q is basically what Matthew added to Mark. But the character of Jesus in that “text” espouses what are in most respects really the views of the Hillelites, who were also Pharisees (OHJ, Element 33, pp. 175-77); which is how we know this is all fiction: what Matthew depicts simply isn’t how those conversations would actually have gone had they ever actually happened (Jesus from Outer Space, pp. 129-31). Matthew’s Jesus is a Pharisee, not their opponent. He just represents the liberal (and generally predominating) wing of the Pharisee movement of the era (the very one that evolved into modern Rabbinicalism).
So Matthew/Q created a fake story, with a fake, ahistorical character, interacting with fake, ahistorical opponents, to espouse a particular point of view at the nexus of nascent (Petrine) Christianity (possibly descending from Essenism) and Hillellite Phariseeism, none of which making any sense in an early-first-century Palestinian context. To the contrary it is most definitely a fiction aimed at the Greco-Jewish Diaspora, e.g. as Dale Allison shows vis-a-vis the late invention of the Sermon on the Mount (more on which in a moment, but for my summary: OHJ, pp. 465-72). A document that is manifest fiction, inventing a character who argues and interacts with the world in a manifestly fictional way, cannot be used to support that character’s historicity. This is the central, fatal problem with MacDonald’s thesis here. It’s self-refuting. Q (if it existed) cannot evince the historicity of its central, made-up character, as they are just a mythical avatar for an ideology—the ideology espoused by its authors. The character of Jesus is there just a puppet for someone else’s point of view. Exactly as Moses was.
MacDonald didn’t really have an answer to this, which I raised at various points throughout our discussion. His position thus doesn’t really make much sense. Instead, he leaned on the non sequitur that this rules out a revelatory origin of the cult because “there’s nothing in [MacDonald’s idea of the] Q document to suggest that there was a revelation to anybody about Jesus as a pre-existent being.” But that’s also true of Mark. That’s the point of these myths. Just as I explain in OHJ and JFOS. This is what was done for every other revelatory savior: the “revelatory” origin of their cult is erased or concealed and replaced with a tale about them once having been a historical person. This is what happened to Romulus (the “historicized” avatar of the celestial Quirinus), as well as Osiris, Dionysus, Hercules, even Zeus; likewise (in relevant respects) John Frum and Tom Navy (OHJ, Element 29, pp. 159-63). So it cannot follow that doing the same to Jesus rules out a revelatory origin. This is simply how Euhemerization operated at that time (OHJ, Element 45, p. 222; see Euhemerization Means Doing What Euhemerus Did). So the absence of the original founding story of the cult in their myths is not relevant. Its absence from that myth was the point of the myth. That is in fact what makes it a myth.
By analogy, the Pentateuch “completely omits” any mention of a bunch of rabbis making up all its Law codes and stories promoting them, and fabricating a Moses to have received them on a mountain from God, to act as a fictional mouthpiece and invented authority for them. That is in no way evidence against that being nevertheless in fact exactly what happened. That the made-up tales of Moses don’t mention their being made-up is not evidence for the historicity of Moses. Nor can it be for Jesus. That’s to completely misunderstand the entire concept of myth. Myths conceal and allegorize realities; they do not plainly state them. Thus when MacDonald says Jesus in his reconstruction of Q is actually “compared to Moses, to Ezekial and to Isaiah, all of whom [the author] and his readers would have assumed were historical characters,” he misses the irony: Moses is a fictional character invented for exactly the same purpose and in exactly the same way as Jesus—yet also believed by these same readers and writers to be historical. Thus that Jesus is the new Moses sooner argues Jesus is just as made-up as Moses, and in the same ways, and for the same reasons. Likewise, just as the mythical Aesop’s biography was fabricated to emulate the historical Socrates (OHJ, Element 46, pp. 222-25), the mythical Jesus’s biography was fabricated to emulate historical prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel as well as nonhistorical prophets like Moses and Elijah (or at least Moses; I’m less certain Elijah is mythical, but the evidence for his historicity is not strong).
More pertinent is MacDonald’s insistence that his reconstruction of “Q” does not mention anything “about salvation,” that “people believing in Jesus can be saved,” but is solely concerned with worldly reforms to Jewish law. He is thus implying Q does not even derive from Paul’s sect or evidently even Peter’s, but some earlier hypothetical Christian sect nowhere in evidence that had not yet even invented any of the pre-Pauline creeds (1 Corinthians 15, Philippians 2, Romans 1)—which means Q’s content predates even Christianity as we understand it (a conclusion MacDonald explicitly affirms around minute 35). This is about as wildly radical a thesis as one can propose; yet there is simply no evidence for it. Not only because MacDonald’s reconstruction of Q is just a conjecture and not actual evidence, making this a circular argument—if all Q is are Matthew’s additions to Mark, changed up by Luke, then MacDonald’s thesis is dead in the water; that the Sermon on the Mount has been proved to be post-Pauline, for example, is fatal to MacDonald’s theory here, so one has to circularly assume Matthew’s additions originated apart from expanding the skeleton of Mark’s story in order to argue that they originated apart from expanding the skeleton of Mark’s story—but also because a Deuteronomy-inspired rumination on the gospel’s implications for the Jewish Law (as MacDonald proposes this added material is), using the vehicle of a fictional Jesus as the new Moses, cannot even in principle be evidence its authors did not also adopt the pre-Pauline salvation creeds and accept Jesus as their savior (the only form of Christianity there is any actual evidence of). Just because they wrote a treatise on the Law does not mean they rejected the fundamental soteriological tenets defining Christianity. MacDonald’s argument is thus a non sequitur.
It’s all the worse that we have seen case after case of “rewriting” an old story with a new character. The Letter of Eugnostos becomes a speech from Jesus in the Sophia of Jesus Christ; tales about Elijah become tales about Jesus; sayings of Paul become sayings and parables of Jesus; tales told of Greek heroes in Homer become tales told of Roman heroes in Virgil; Amphion and Zethus are rewritten to be Romulus and Remus. We cannot know where the Deuteronomic material in Matthew came from or that it was even about a character named Jesus (much less the Christian’s Jesus): inserting the name Jesus, having him say and do that stuff, may be the Christian cooptation of a prior, purely Jewish wisdom writing that was never even written by or for Christians originally, or about anyone named Jesus. Of course I personally think this is all just Matthew, definitely a Jesus-saves-style Christian, making all this up about Jesus, attributing to Jesus all this “Moses perfecting” wisdom that is actually just the collated ideas of Matthew or his community (which then gets changed up and redacted by Luke). But if we are to suppose Matthew is somehow “getting this stuff” from somewhere else, we have no way to know where or what changes Matthew made or what he added or left out.
For example, we cannot say that that source text was even Christian (such that the name “Jesus” throughout was only added by Matthew, or was originally meant as the ancient Joshua and the historical context simply updated by Matthew). And we cannot say it omitted anything—because we do not have it. So we actually don’t know that it didn’t frame the salvific role of Jesus in much the same or similar ways as Mark had, or indeed that Mark’s soteriological material didn’t come from this very document. MacDonald’s attempt to exclude Markan material not fitting his thesis from his reconstruction of Q is fallaciously circular, as becomes obvious when you compare his thesis to the more obvious one Ockham’s Razor leads us to: that everything Matthew adds to Mark was made up by Matthew, and thus Luke’s “source” for that material is, in fact, Matthew: a text that fully incorporated Markan soteriology! It would be fallacious to argue Matthew “must have” omitted that material because it’s all in Mark; because we have Matthew: we know he didn’t omit that material. We thus cannot say anything differently about any hypothetical Q. Because as far as this point goes, there is no relevant difference between Matthew and Q—other than that we have Matthew, and thus can check the validity of our conjectures against it.
We thus can’t even get MacDonald’s convoluted, multiply-circular argument for historicity off the ground, much less flying. It is conjecture stacked atop conjecture backed by circular premises, all to end up with nothing more than a non sequitur. I’m not impressed by this. When arguments for historicity have to get this obscure, elaborate, and tenuously built atop systems of unprovable conjectures and suppositions, we really should give up the business. No real person’s existence needs such bizarre efforts to defend it.
Part Three: Paul?
“Paul,” MacDonald claims, “has no obligation to say anything about the historical Jesus” because he wants to push a singular innovation (about the now-celestial Jesus “newly” deciding Gentiles can join the sect without converting to Judaism). That’s quite false; in fact, thoroughly indefensible. That lone innovation of Paul’s in no way entails he would or even could avoid mentioning or discussing historical facts about Jesus. I’ve quite conclusively refuted such assertions already in OHJ (Chapter 11) so I hardly need revisit the matter. I show there that Paul repeatedly has need and opportunity to discuss and mention facts about the historical Jesus and what he said and did and how anyone knew any of it, not least to defend his own novel positions against his opponents citing just such things against him, but even as well to support his own teachings, which were not all the singular innovation he introduced—Paul’s letters are full of defending and explaining the same positions as the original Apostles, where referencing facts about Jesus, things Jesus said, and sources regarding them, would all be invaluable and unavoidable. It is thus very, very strange that Paul never does this (nor 1 Clement or Hebrews or 1 Peter or James, all also plausibly Pauline-era writings that also seem just as oddly to have no knowledge of a historical Jesus: OHJ, Chapters 8.5, 11.3, and 11.5). And there is no avoiding the mathematical consequences of an oddity so unusual in our earliest source material. One simply has to face the arguments I have marshaled to this point in Chapter 11 of OHJ. There can be no gainsaying them with mere hand-waving. That’s apologetics, not history.
MacDonald repeated this baseless and already-refuted assertion again in the second hour, around minute 26 there, insisting “there was no one in [Paul’s] congregations, as far as we know, who was denying that Jesus was a human being” and therefore “he had no reason to talk about the historical Jesus.” That’s a non sequitur. The reasons Paul would have to bring up facts about the life and deeds and speeches of Jesus are not “to combat doubts that he existed” (that is nowhere a rationale I ever mention in my extensive peer-reviewed discussion of this in Chapter 11 of On the Historicity of Jesus). Just as the reasons Pliny, in his own letters, has to bring up facts about the life and deeds and speeches of his father (or any other teacher he admired) were never “to combat doubts that he existed,” and the reasons Cicero, in his own letters, has to bring up facts about the life and deeds and speeches of important statesmen and sages were never “to combat doubts that they existed.” If you want to see a long list of actual reasons to mention facts about Jesus in Paul’s case, read my survey of them in OHJ.
As I summarize in Jesus from Outer Space (pp. 47-48):
All [the evidence historicists cite] from the Epistles [is] hopelessly vague and theological, not plain references to an earthly life of Jesus at all. Which is already by itself extremely strange. Why is this all we have, and not numerous debates and discussions and questions about Jesus’ ministry and trial and death or his miracles or parables or how he chose or affected or instructed the people who knew him? How has Paul never heard of the word “disciple” or that anyone was Jesus’ hand-picked representative in life? Why is he always weirdly vague; for instance, ascribing the death of Jesus to “archons of this eon” (1 Corinthians 2:6–10), which he characterizes as spiritual rather than terrestrial forces (as he there says they would understand esoteric details of God’s planned magical formulae), rather than to “Pontius Pilate” or “the Romans” or “the Jews”? Why does he never say Jesus’ death occurred “in Jerusalem”? How can Paul avoid in some 20,000 words ever making any clear reference to Jesus being on Earth? How can every question, argument, or opposition he ever faced have avoided referencing things Jesus said or did in life? He never referenced them. He never had them cited against him. He is never asked about them. That’s weird. And weird is just another word for improbable. Unless the only Jesus any Christians yet knew, was a revealed being, not an earthly minister.
Add to this all the direct evidence that Paul had only ever heard of a revelatory Jesus (Romans 10:12-14 & 16:25-26; Galatians 1:11-17 with 1 Corinthians 9:1 & 11:23-26 & 15:1-8; etc.), and that’s that.
Part Three: Josephus?
MacDonald then wants Josephus to have really mentioned Jesus. Of course, there is no logical case for such a conclusion. This really ought to be a dead argument by now. Those maintaining it only ever do so by literally ignoring all the recent scholarship dooming it. To be fair, MacDonald has mostly given up on the primary Testimonium Flavianum. He admits Josephus did not write that paragraph about Jesus in his narrative of Pilate’s atrocities, but maybe something else we can only speculate as to. But he continues to lean on the mere two words (“called Christ”) almost surely inserted into Josephus’s account of the execution of a certain James a “brother of Jesus” shortly before the Jewish War. The evidence fairly strongly proves Josephus did not write those words; they were added by a scribe in the library of Origen in Caesarea sometime in the late third century (indeed that passage was unknown to Origen himself, despite his scouring the texts of Josephus for references to Jesus; Origen demonstrably confused his scroll of Hegesippus for a volume of Josephus). Josephus originally composed that story as about the brother of the high priest Jesus the son of Damneus, by way of explaining why and how that Jesus ascended to the office in the early 60s A.D. My peer reviewed case for that finding is reproduced in my book Hitler Homer Bible Christ (and summarized in OHJ Chapter 8.9).
Nevertheless, MacDonald has not reviewed that case and thus has no counter. He just wants the passage to be authentic as we have it. He even uses ironically self-refuting arguments like that the passage as we have it assumes “the reader would already know who [this] Jesus is,” which actually only a Christian interpolator would assume. This is in fact one of the proofs of interpolation. We know how Josephus handles sectarian politics and unusual words and persons or obscure cross-references (we even have examples of his doing all three on even less obscure facts in this very same passage!); yet he does not do any such thing here, which is how we know he didn’t write those two words. He makes no cross-reference; he gives no explanation. Instead his original story left or made it clear the Jesus he meant was the only other Jesus named in that paragraph: the priest Jesus ben Damneus. No further explanation was needed because it’s right there in the same text.
This is all sideshow however, as even if Josephus did write those two words here, we have no reason to believe he knew what they meant. As all Christians called themselves (and in fact genuinely believed themselves) to be the brothers of Jesus Christ, we cannot know if Josephus meant or understood “brother of Jesus” here biologically or cultically. If his source meant cultically, for example, he could easily assume biologically, and so we get a story of a Brother of the Lord being executed in the 60s. It is moot to ask about the “others” Josephus mentions, for heterous is an adjective and as such we cannot claim to know whether or not Josephus meant it to reference “brothers” or if Josephus’s source even mentioned these “others” also being Christian brethren (or even in fact Christians; Josephus makes no mention of them even being associates of James). So there is no evidence here for a historical Jesus. We cannot reconstruct where Josephus got this information or what it actually said or meant; and we cannot depend on an unevidenced assumption that Josephus or his sources knew such esoteric distinctions as Christian soteriological kinship terminology. In short, we can affirm nothing from this evidence even if it were authentic, because we cannot affirm things we do not know, just as we cannot ignore evidence (such as what Christians peculiarly called each other, and that the words “called Christ” cannot have come from Josephus), nor invent evidence (such as regarding what sources or esoteric knowledge Josephus may have had). And those words most certainly aren’t even authentic. So here we have again a stack of conjectures on top of conjectures, all to reconstruct an item of evidence for a historical Jesus. Real people don’t need such herculean efforts to prove they exist. And real evidence is not so surrounded with such abundant evidence of fabrication.
Nevertheless, ignoring all the actual pertinent evidence here (I do not get the impression MacDonald has read my section on this in On the Historicity of Jesus, or my article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies; he certainly did not engage with or even mention any of their arguments in this discussion, and by his self-contradicting assertions seems not to know of them), MacDonald attempts a completely new, weird, esoteric argument from the underlying Greek of Josephus (somewhere around minute 35), which I have already covered in adequate detail in “What Did Josephus Mean by That?” A Case Study in the Relationship between Evidence and Probability. I won’t recreate any of that here, suffice to repeat its conclusion:
MacDonald relies on a ton of unevidenced assumptions, far exceeding any mine relies on in turn. Indeed, many of MacDonald’s assumptions are worse than unevidenced; many contradict the evidence. Whereas none of the assumptions my theory requires are even unlikely; in fact all comport with or even have support in evidence.
I show there how MacDonald’s attempt to reinterpret the Greek of Josephus in a strange way, so as to get a “Christian” meaning of its events not actually stated in the text, is not logical and even refuted by the evidence. It just gets weirder that the way MacDonald uses his newly invented evidence-not-actually-in Josephus is to argue that this new version of what Josephus said supports and is supported by MacDonald’s conjectures about Q (it actually doesn’t) and therefore this somehow is evidence Jesus existed (it isn’t; I can’t even reconstruct by what logical syllogism MacDonald thinks it is). MacDonald also says things here (in minute 36) I could make no sense of, like “Jesus is not a messiah” (so why then does Josephus call him the messiah—Christ—if the Christians he is supposed to be talking about didn’t?) and “there’s no faith in Jesus because he’s heavenly revealed or the son of God” here (how can we claim to know that when Josephus doesn’t opine on either, in fact does not discuss Christian beliefs at all?). MacDonald’s reasoning here would not pass the peer review of any actual historians. It just doesn’t make logical sense, and follows no recognizable historical method.
Part Four: Something or Other?
Between minute 37 and 38 MacDonald wraps the preceding commentary with “So that’s the first argument.” Which we just saw is too convoluted a series of conjectures (many of which contrary to the evidence) to even form an argument, making this one of the weirdest attempts to defend the historicity of Jesus I have ever encountered. “The second argument I want to make,” he says, “has to do with Mark.” He agrees Mark “has so heavily mythologized Jesus that there is hardly any historically reliable information left in Mark,” or at least, such as “he couldn’t have received from the Q document.” Therefore, he says, “I think Mark is relatively useless in establishing historical information,” likewise “that the Gospel tradition including the Gospel of John is heavily indebted to Mark’s narrative” and thus provides nothing usable either. We’re thus stuck with “a historically corrupted, mythologized Jesus in the Gospel tradition at a very early stage.”
Nevertheless, MacDonald insists, “you almost need a historical Jesus to make the mythologizing of Jesus make sense,” such as the subtitle of his book suggests: Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero. I would call an emphasis on the “almost” here. And even that’s being generous. We don’t need such theories to explain any other heroic personage (from Romulus to Osiris, Dionysus to Hercules, Joseph to Moses, Aesop to John Frum). So why do we “need” a real Jesus to explain the exact same thing happening to him? If they can be made up, so can he. That Jesus went from historical teacher to mythic hero is a hypothesis; and the mere existence of a hypothesis is not evidence for it being correct. Even that it’s a plausible hypothesis is not evidence it’s the most probable hypothesis. His hypothesis is included in the generous 1 in 3 chance I allow there to have actually been a historical Jesus after all. That’s ample plausibility. It’s still an improbability.
Going into minute 39 MacDonald tries to produce some sort of argument here the logic of which eludes me. Best I can do is quote his exact words:
Mark is saying that Jesus is superior to Hector and Odyseus [for example]. Both of whom do not have divine parents. In both cases they’re mortal. In both cases they die. And Mark is trying to say that Jesus is a mortal who rises. And there, Jesus…is a Galilean. He gets baptized by John the Baptist. He’s identified as the son of God. God works through him and he dies and God vindicates him.
Okay. And why does this make Jesus any more historical than any other mythic hero about whom similar things are said? Jesus is even more concertedly made a superior Moses. A mortal without divine parents who does not rise from the dead either. Still not historical. Nor are Hector or Odyseus. Likewise Jesus is made to be a superior Elijah. Still not likely historical. Mark is not “converting” a dead man into a risen hero—Mark is reifying into mythical fiction the teachings of Paul (see Mark’s Use of Paul’s Epistles). Mark was already a firm believer in the salvific resurrection of Jesus long before he started crafting myths about his worshiped Lord. He had no “converting” to do of any mere mortal. He started with the divine cosmic savior. Just as the priests of the Osiris cult did. And he puts all of that behind symbolism and allegory. Just as the priests of the Osiris cult did. There is no evidence to be got here that Mark knows of any real historical man named Jesus, any more than the writers of the Pentateuch knew of a real Moses or the inventors of the Romulus myth knew a real Romulus or the contrivers of the “biography” of Osiris as a historical pharaoh knew any real such person either. So I can fathom no argument here.
At best I must surmise MacDonald intended what he had argued in his book (Two Shipwrecked Gospels, as I analyzed before and as we debated before), some kind of Argument from Embarrassment, wherein it is proposed to be improbable that a mythmaker would invent a detail like “baptized by John the Baptist” (to the contrary, Mark’s invention of that detail is so well-motivated we should in fact doubt it ever happened even if Jesus existed: Proving History, index, “John the Baptist”) or “was a Galilean” (to the contrary, scripture required that detail, per Isaiah 9:1-7, as did MacDonald’s own thesis that Mark needed a location to put his Odysseus and crew frequently to sea; indeed even a Nazareth origin was scripturally demanded and allegorically constructed as Matthew 2:23 lets slip; see Proving History, index, “Nazareth”). Jesus is the adopted son of God (and thus depicted being adopted by God as his son) because that’s the Pauline theology Mark is allegorizing into a tale. And Jesus spends a spell as a mortal and dies, because that’s the Pauline theology Mark is allegorizing into a tale. As is the reason Jesus rises from the dead (Mark’s whole empty tomb narrative is mythology reifying the gospel: The Empty Tomb, pp. 155-97). And Jesus is crafted after other mythical figures because he, like them, is mythical, and intended to replace them. There is simply no evidence here for historicity.
Part Five: I Know a Guy?
Finally, in minute 39 onward MacDonald closes with a very brief third argument, having to do with “the Johannine tradition” which he counts Papias a part of, though acknowledging I disagree with nearly everything MacDonald says about this. I side with the majority of scholars who date Papias no earlier than 130, and Papias plainly says he never personally met any apostle, much less “the Apostle John” (he only hunted down by rumor what people thought they were saying or had said), and the evidence is actually not so great that Papias knew the letter now called 1 John or knew it as by anyone named John, and no evidence at all that he ever personally knew its author. I already refuted all these bizarre assertions last time. To rest any arguments on them entails another convoluted stack of implausible conjectures, which no historical person’s existence should require.
In this context MacDonald says at minute 40 that “the only trustworthy claim from any early Christian author to have known Jesus personally appears in the beginning of 1st John, where the elder identifies himself among ‘multiple eyewitnesses’,” to wit:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our [or your] joy complete.1 JOHN 1:1-4 (NIF)
Most scholars agree these letters are forgeries, not actual letters by the Apostle John. Even most of the few scholars who don’t think they are forgeries, do so only because they conclude this passage isn’t referring to physically interacting with Jesus (see Bart Ehrman’s excellent discussion in Forgery and Counterforgery, pp. 419-25). These Epistles actually have no Apostle’s name in the address—that name was assigned them later—the first says nothing about its author; the later ones only cryptically call himself “The Elder.” Not, take note, Apostle (much less disciple). Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe any of this. It’s obviously an anti-heretical fabrication in the vein of 2 Peter, invented to “refute” anyone who denied the historical veracity of the Gospels, loosely based on the elaborate fabrications in the Gospel of John (OHJ, Chapter 10.7; just as the Long Ending of Mark was loosely based on Matthew, Luke, and John to “fix” a dissatisfying lack of evidence for the resurrection in Mark’s original draft: HHBC, Chapter 16).
As MacDonald can adduce no evidence 1 John isn’t just such a forgery, as nearly every other non-fundamentalist expert agrees it is, we cannot use it as evidence for historicity. It simply doesn’t pass muster. Its author didn’t even tell us their name. And no one who could know if it were authentic vouches for it; no one even mentions it until almost a century after Jesus would have died. And no one who was an adult in the 30s could plausibly have been alive when this letter was most likely written anyway, which is around 100 or later (as it post-dates the Gospel John who post-dates the Gospel Luke who can’t have written before the early 90s), and befittingly, there is no evidence any such person lived even beyond the 70s (OHJ, Element 22, pp. 148-52).
1st John is therefore actually evidence against historicity, if it is evidence of anything. At best, one could say it is evidence of nothing, because we cannot establish the authenticity of anything in the letter; but its suspect nature is more than sufficient to leave us not at “at best” but at “at worst.” Because it’s so obviously (like 2 Peter and for the same reasons) a fabrication to denounce doubters of the historicity of the Gospels, who were in fact (this letter says) also Christians. Which proves two unsavory facts for MacDonald: (1) there were Christian doubters of historicity (thus mythicism was a live sectarian option then, and yet all their writings were destroyed; all we have are fabricated polemics against them like this: see OHJ, Chapters 7.7 & 8.12, and my discussion of 2 Peter and the modern confusion over so-called Docetism); and (2) there was no real evidence anyone could cite against them—no real witnesses to consult or testify, nor anything written by them even. That’s why the author of 1 John had to make up a vague, derivative, anonymous, late-contrived epistle instead. That does not bode well for any defender of historicity today. And it bodes well ill against MacDonald’s attempt to gullibly assert this faked evidence is real. (MacDonald also still seems inclined to gullibly believe the obviously fabricated evidence in the Gospel of John; per OHJ, Chapter 10.7, I can adduce no logical reason for anyone to do that, least of all someone who agrees John is a wanton fabricator.)
Part Six: What Is Myth For?
Around minute 51 MacDonald shifted into a difficult-to-grasp argument having to do with some weird assumption that I think the Gospels were written to “prove historicity” and his trying to argue they were written to prove other things instead, “therefore” Jesus existed. This is another non sequitur. This “therefore” in no way logically follows from those premises; the purpose of the Gospels can be to sell ideology with a fictional Jesus. The premises are also false, making this a straw man. I have actually always argued the very thing he is. He really needs to sit down and carefully read On the Historicity of Jesus to get a correct sense of what I have actually argued, so he doesn’t waste time arguing against positions I have never espoused and do not require (he could try starting with the primer, Jesus from Outer Space, but really he needs to read the peer reviewed academic monograph—although there is a complete concordance to where everything is expanded on in OHJ at the back of JFOS).
No one invented the biographies of Romulus or Osiris or Aesop to “prove” they were historical. They just wrote myths as if they were historical—because that was the fad in mythology during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (see Elements 40 and 44 in Chapter 5 of OHJ). This is how people preferred to package their teachings and message and ideology: creating a fake biography in which the invented hero does and says all the things they need them to do and say to “reify” those teachings and ideas in quasi-historical tales that allegorically teach and represent what is needed. This has nothing to do with proving historicity. It has to do with creating historicity as a vehicle for selling a package of ideas.
At its inception historicity would not even be a required belief of the insider. As Mark invents Jesus saying, only outsiders were meant to take his stories literally; insiders would be told the symbolic meaning of those stories, which is the real teaching, concealed within a fake “historical” tale (the way ancient scripture was often read, which is precisely the way new scripture would be written: OHJ, Element 14, pp. 114-24). Gradually over time the effort to sell the outsider on this by increasing efforts to conceal that truth in a more convincing veneer (Matthew, Luke) leads to some starting to believe (or deliberately sell) that historicity as essential to the creed (see How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus?). For instance, per the Noll thesis I discuss in OHJ, this always happens in religions, as a political move to maintain control and authority by pushing out revelatory apostles and fabricating a pedigree to “real” apostles; but we needn’t assume that was the reason, though it is an evident and good one, as there were ample reasons in antiquity to start insisting myths were histories (I give examples from Pagan and Jewish culture as well as Christian in Establishing the Biblical Literalism of Early Christians).
It is only by the time of the final redaction of John (as John has been edited and added to by multiple redactors and we only have the final edition) that we see a deliberately and explicitly stated effort to “prove historicity”—not only in such ways as the reification of Luke’s Parable of Lazarus into a real Lazarus (see OHJ, index, “Lazarus”) to “refute” Luke’s message that we should believe without evidence by inventing “real evidence” that should convince us to believe, but also in even more obvious (indeed, peculiarly literal) ways, such as simply outright saying it: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe,” “He saw and believed,” “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe,” “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” See Chapter 10.7 of OHJ for more evidence and examples of the redactional repurposing of the Gospel of John as a “proof of historicity” text; it may well have originally been as allegorical as the other Gospels before that final version, but regardless, the version now in the canon has completely flipped the script of Mark 4:9-13. And it is after this point that all the historicizing details (Pilate, Mary, etc.) became essential even to the creed (a creed that previously lacked them), by which Christians who did not assert those as fact were deliberately shunned as agents of Satan (How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus? and Establishing the Biblical Literalism of Early Christians).
But even after that point, the myths continued to serve (and continued to be invented!) to serve all the same purposes they originally had as well, which was not to “prove historicity,” but to teach ideology, through stories and speeches. Establishing historicity was always just one side-aim now added to that majority aim. As I wrote in Proving History (pp. 155-56):
That Jesus had enemies who slandered him, that Jesus went to parties with sinners to save them, that Jesus’ family rejected him, and so on, all face the same problems of self-contradiction (had they been a problem, they would have been removed or altered long before Mark even wrote), ignorance (we don’t really know whether these stories were embarrassing to the communities who told them at the time they were first told), and self-defeat (any reason to preserve them if true can be just as much reason to fabricate them, and in every case we can easily construct plausible motives for their invention, which often make even more sense than the stories being true).
These tales gave missionaries “stories to tell” to explain how they are being “slandered,” or how real family should be abandoned for the new fictive kin group they were selling, or why they attend “parties with sinners to save them,” and so on. Because Jesus did; at which the missionary can break into their sermon on “here is why.” The Gospels are thus like a minstrel’s lead sheet: starting points for sermons, on this or that idea, whatever point the missionary wants or needs to sell an audience on. Every mythic pericope in every Gospel serves some point, teaches some lesson, as did all mythology in the ancient world—Jewish, Christian, or Pagan. It was not all cultivated to some singular purpose like “proving historicity.” That wasn’t the point of myth (OHJ, Chapter 10.3). In fact, once you are using myth to “prove historicity” you have shifted the entire aim and purpose; you are now fabricating history. The two can operate together (John’s tales teach doctrines through the same allegorical and parabolic methods as ever at the same time as they sell that myth as historical fact; as sometimes acknowledged by more honest Christians of the era like Origen: Elements 13 and 14 in Chapter 4 of OHJ).
So that the Gospel authors did what all myths do, invent stories to sell ideas (and only much later added “proving historicity” to that list of ideas), is in no way evidence for the historicity of Jesus. A fictional Jesus suited that purpose just as well—if not better (it’s easier, after all, to invent myths about a non-existent man than a real one: see OHJ, Chapter 6.7). As MacDonald well knows: he agrees almost every story told of Jesus is fake, and thus a fake Jesus is being routinely recruited to sell whatever ideas the author wants. So if 99% of these stories are fake, why are we assuming the other 1% aren’t? We have no reason to. It’s as likely all fake. Now, this does not prove mythicism. The Gospels can be 100% fiction and still Jesus existed. All this does is remove the Gospels as evidence. It does not, by itself, argue against there being a real Jesus. Which is the actual conclusion of my chapter on the Gospels in On the Historicity of Jesus: “the Gospels have no effect on the probability that Jesus existed, neither to raise or lower it” (p. 507). The only exception has to do with how extensively they mythologize Jesus (OHJ, Chapter 6), because that rarely happens to real people, but routinely happens to mythical ones. But that requires attending to the actual argument. And MacDonald never brought that argument up.
Part Seven: Logic?
That actually gets us to the methodological issue MacDonald continued to stumble over throughout our discussion: how the logic of probability works. He often relied on the fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter, “it’s possible that [x], therefore it’s probable that [x].” That’s a non sequitur. That something is possible in no way entails it is therefore even likely, much less most likely. He then confused this with the argument in modal logic that the proposition “[x] is impossible” can be refuted by proving merely that “[x] is possible.” You do not have to prove [x] probable when all you need do is prove [x] possible. I find historians—and especially apologists—get these confused so frequently as to be indicative of an epistemic pathology.
Such as when MacDonald said my list of alternative explanations for a story appearing in the Gospels, “That’s not evidence and it’s not even argument. It’s speculation.” No. It’s an argument: if you cannot prove those alternative explanations unlikely, you cannot conclude your explanation is likely. This argument cannot be dismissed by saying those alternatives are speculative. All theories are speculative, including his. MacDonald was speculating too. Hence my point: you can’t just “assume” your speculation is the more probable. You have to prove that. And you cannot prove that without proving alternatives less likely. You thus can’t argue for a theory, an explanation of some piece of evidence, in isolation; you have to take seriously alternative explanations of that same evidence, because you have to show they are unlikely—otherwise you cannot claim they are. And if you cannot claim they are unlikely, you cannot claim your theory is likely. That’s simply how logic works. (See my Advice on Probabilistic Reasoning.)
This is the same confusion as mistaking an argument that we do not know whether [x] is true or not, as an argument that [x] is false. Historians—and especially apologists—confuse those two all the time as well. When I prove with evidence (not just “speculate”) that the Gospels are chock full of made-up tales, and conclude that therefore other tales in the Gospels cannot be known to be true either, I am not—not—arguing that those other tales are therefore false. I am only arguing that we do not know they are true. And therefore we cannot use them as evidence. And that means either way, pro or con. Even at best they are as likely to be true as false; therefore they have no value. We can prove nothing with them. To assume they are true is insupportable speculation; to assume they are false is insupportable speculation. That’s simply how logic works. The only proper response to such an argument is to prove the story you want to be true is probably true. Which requires proving the alternative (here, that it is a fiction constructed to sell an idea, built out of literary tropes and scriptural cues) is probably false. Because if that explanation is not “probably” false, your explanation cannot claim to be “probably” true.
MacDonald never did seem to understand my attempts to explain this in our discussion. My case for mythicism is built on two sets of arguments: one in which I prove propositions probably true, which decrease the probability Jesus existed; the other in which I prove propositions are as probable as myth as they are as fact, which eliminates those propositions as evidence either way (they neither can increase nor decrease the probability Jesus existed). MacDonald mistook the latter as trying to prove Jesus didn’t exist with speculations; to the contrary, I only proved the evidence he is citing is no more effective at proving Jesus existed than that he didn’t, because MacDonald fails to rule out plausible alternatives that are elsewhere well-evidenced, and therefore in any other given case are as reasonably likely as not.
Hence as I said after an hour in, at minute 1:04: “That’s my point actually. You’re doing the same thing,” i.e. speculating, “but you’re just assuming” some factoid or saying (like the Sermon on the Mount, a prominent component of MacDonald’s Q) “comes from Jesus” whereas “all I’m saying is” that in order “to tell the difference between these two theories, where these teachings come from,” we have to find evidence that one is more likely than the other or else we cannot claim either. So, either that factoid or saying was invented to a purpose later—as Dale Allison has proved for the Sermon on the Mount (OHJ, index, “Sermon on the Mount”) and as I was arguing for Jesus’s supposed teaching about taxes (which clearly more likely originated with Paul)—or came from a real Jesus. But if we don’t know either way, then we cannot use that factoid or saying. At all. It is not evidence for historicity or against. It simply isn’t usable as evidence. Period.
As I said regarding Mark’s invention of a pithy tale having Jesus say something about taxes that reinforces the teaching of Paul, “I think what Mark is doing is specifically responding, he’s building a story that responds to arguments against Paul, by reifying Paul’s story and having Jesus say a pithy saying about it,” a saying that was unknown to Paul, even though it would have powerfully reinforced his argument in Romans 13, and thus clearly it was invented by Mark, not Jesus. “So my point is that we have two competing explanations for this evidence,” the pithy tale in Mark, “so what we need is [other] evidence that favors one over the other, and we don’t have that.” So my argument was not simply “my explanation is more probable than yours.” My argument was “that we have possibilities that are equally good,” equally likely on what scant evidence we currently have, and we have no way to tell which is the more likely. Therefore this datum cannot be used to argue either side here.
MacDonald confusingly tried to get around this by arguing a minute later:
No, No, No. Those are different questions. Those are two different comments. Methodologically, it’s one thing to say, “We don’t have evidence.” It’s another to say, “We have different interpretations of evidence.” And I think there is evidence, in some cases where you think [there isn’t].
Except he never presented any such evidence. That there was an elaborate mechanism transmitting oral lore from Jesus’s lips to Mark’s ears that then spilled onto his page, which somehow completely bypassed the knowledge of Paul and appears to be responding to critics of Paul’s argument for paying taxes as if by time travel, is a speculation without any evidence. There is no evidence any such mechanism existed, or any such oral lore, or that any of it went back to Jesus. Thus my alternative mechanism is no less likely. I don’t need to present any more evidence for it because it is already equally plausible (in fact, unlike “a chain of oral lore from Jesus to Mark,” my mechanism is well attested as what Mark does extensively throughout his Gospel), and MacDonald’s alternative is just as un-evidenced (if not, as I just noted, more so). Our two competing speculations are thus at best equally likely on our mutual background knowledge (as MacDonald well admits such mechanisms for inventing stories about Jesus existed and explain most of the content of the Gospels already). And that’s that. He has no more evidence to offer that his explanation caused the story in Mark than mine did. We’re done here.
MacDonald then tried to say something about “plausibility,” but since like most historians he has not immersed himself in the actual logic and language of probability, he wasn’t able to articulate just what the word “plausible” means and why. It is in fact a mathematical word, it says something about probability. In particular, the word “plausible” means “probable enough to consider but not as yet probable enough to conclude.” Otherwise we’d say “it’s probable” or “it’s most probable,” and not “it’s plausible.” Thus “plausible” is an English word historians deploy to signify when they are not certain something is the case but that it is nevertheless a reasonable possibility, in effect something we cannot rule out (such as by proving it is so improbable, so unlikely, that it is no longer reasonable to even consider it—that it can be excluded “by reasonable doubt”).
The word “plausible” can also refer to prior probabilities (a probability of a thing prior to considering specific evidence for or against it). As for example when one might say upon hearing someone saw an alien spaceship that it’s “plausible” to assume, before even inquiring further, that they didn’t really, because the prior probabilities of alternative explanations of what they saw are so much higher. But even that prior probability can be overcome by a sufficient amount of particular evidence (such as was made available to the public as depicted in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still). Either way, “plausible” is a reference to a probability distinct from (less than) the probability of something being so high we can conclude it’s the case. But as such, “plausibility” is still just a reference to a probability. And it therefore requires evidence. I go into more on this point in A Case Study in the Relationship between Evidence and Probability.
MacDonald was thus wrong when he said “plausibility has to do with the likelihood that one interpretation has priority over another.” Incorrect. In colloquial English that would be the word “probable” not the word “plausible.” When we say “it is probable that” we mean (usually) it is more likely than alternative “interpretations” (to use MacDonald’s word; I prefer “explanations”). But when we say “it is plausible that” we mean (usually) that there are other explanations (other “interpretations”) that could be true, and that ours has a fair chance to compete with them (if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be “plausible”). The word “plausible” in ordinary, common discourse, especially in historical discourse, therefore does not mean the same thing as “most likely” but means, to the contrary, “not necessarily most likely but likely enough to consider; a thing we can’t rule out.” It can often refer to less probable theories that nevertheless have enough probability still yet to be true.
For example, I think Jesus existing could have as much as a 1 in 3 odds, therefore I say it is plausible that Jesus existed, but nevertheless improbable, as in, “less probable.” But not so improbable as to rule out; not so improbable as to say a historical Jesus is implausible—in the way that, for example, the historicity of the scene imagined in John 20:24-29 is implausible. That’s an implausible Jesus, and thus surely a made-up Jesus; whereas the Jesus depicted in Mark 12:13-17 (where Jesus is depicted giving a pithy answer to a difficult question about Imperial taxes) is a plausible Jesus. That may well be something that really happened. I adduced evidence in our discussion that it likely didn’t (though only by a margin); and MacDonald adduced no evidence it likely did (he just dismissed my evidence, on a basis of no evidence in turn). But my evidence was not sufficient to render MacDonald’s “interpretation” of Mark’s story unlikely enough to conclude it’s false; it was only sufficient to render its probability not high enough to conclude it’s true. Those are not the same thing.
And even plausibility, which by definition falls short of calling something “probable” in the sense of “most likely,” requires evidence to establish. It cannot come from subjective feelings. It must be based in objective realities. If you cannot adduce what objective facts establish your conclusion of plausibility (or even of probability), then you have no reason to trust your “feelings.” You should be deeply skeptical of your intuition at that point; not obsessively married to it. Hence as I said in our discussion:
[All] probabilities have to be based on evidence, right? So you have to have some sort of evidence-based reason for assigning a different probability to one thing versus another. So plausibility would be based on ‘is that plausible in context’ and then … your evidence would be the context. [Such as evidence from the broader culture of the time that] ‘that’s something someone would say’, or something like that. There’s always some sort of evidence that is undergirding the probabilities, that is supporting the probabilities.
I don’t think MacDonald understood this. I noticed in this discussion that he is sometimes immune to evidence and logic once he has reached some sort of emotional dependency on a conclusion. “I’m not willing to grant ground on Josephus,” he said, “I think that my reading is the correct one” (referring to his bizarre claim about the vocabulary in Josephus’s passage about the execution of James). His reading there is quite objectively, empirically, provably not the correct one. He simply chooses to ignore the big pile of evidence against his view, and instead stacks up a bunch of speculations absent any evidence instead, and then treats that as a stack of evidence, and then concludes he must be right. This is absolutely not how historians should behave. This kind of epistemic travesty has to stop. Alas, it is peculiarly rampant in Jesus studies, even among its more secular and liberal experts.
Part Eight: Method?
This problem goes beyond even that example. There comes a point late in our discussion, when MacDonald tries to re-defend his strange claims about Josephus’s account of the execution of James, where he exhibits what I find is a common failure among Jesus historians to employ actual historical methods in reaching their conclusions, acting instead more like apologists. The frequent practices of “apologetic method” in their field having evidently rubbed off on them and continuing to govern their mind even when they have given up the usual Christian apologetical agendas, they keep applying the same specious techniques to defending other theories instead, not evidently having been told those methods are invalid and should be abandoned, not repurposed. It is thus a major problem in the field of Jesus studies that almost no one in it has ever actually been trained as a historian. Their degrees are usually in literary or textual criticism (and that usually only of the Bible), or worse, divinity or theology.
For example, it is embarrassingly ironic that Bart Ehrman tried to claim I was unqualified to discuss this subject, a question in ancient history, because I merely have a Ph.D. in ancient history (including majors in Greco-Roman religion and historiography)—while he has no degree in history of any kind whatever. He only studied English at Wheaton, and theology and textual criticism at Princeton Theological Seminary. Taking a few history classes does not constitute graduate level training as a historian. But this is the attitude common in Jesus studies. Dennis MacDonald at least has a Ph.D. from Harvard in New Testament, and thus is more qualified than Ehrman can claim; but even that degree consists mostly of what historians in other fields would call a degree in literature. Which is why MacDonald is so superb at literary studies. But this can produce a skills deficiency in historical methodology, relative to people who complete doctorates in history.
Case in point. In minute 1:41, MacDonald says, “First of all,” for his story about a James executed during the accession of the Prefect Albinus, “Josephus doesn’t need a source; in this part of what he’s writing in the Antiquities he’s in Jerusalem, so he can be an eyewitness and a reporter without having a source in front of him.” There are two reasons this is not sound reasoning. First, historians should not make assertions without checking them. So, is it true Josephus was at that time in Jerusalem? Do we really know that? And how do we know that? Second, historians must draw these kinds of inferences from the study of an author’s usual practice. In other words, based on the way Josephus writes generally, if Josephus were there, is this how he would relate the account? These are the kinds of questions historians are trained to ask—and answer—before making or relying on such assertions (at least with such confidence). If this wasn’t drilled into you during your graduate studies, you won’t be as inclined to proceed in this way; and if you weren’t trained in how to answer these kinds of questions in reliable ways, you might not do so well at it even if you attempt it.
In point of fact when this execution of James happened, which is year 62, Josephus might not have been in Jerusalem: he might have been in Rome on embassy to Nero. Josephus says “I was born…in the first year of the reign of Caius Caesar,” i.e. Caligula, which means after March of 37, so when he says he visited Nero “in the twenty-sixth year of my age” he could mean between March 62 and 63—and he might even mean he turned 25, beginning his 26th year, during his journey or embassy, so his departure for Rome could have been well before March of 62—so we can’t establish the James execution took place earlier than that embassy. Likewise, Journeys to Rome and back would each have taken several months, and upon his return Josephus says the Jews were already preparing for war, so his time away would appear to have been over a year. And finally, Josephus usually tells us when he is the witness to the events he relates. As he does not do so here, we cannot assume he was present for any of it. In short, there is no evidence he was there, and even some indications he wasn’t there. So this statement does not hold up. Sure, one can “conjecture” he “could” have been there; but there is no evidence he was, and some (albeit inconclusive) evidence he wasn’t; and what we’d often have if he was there (like a discussion of his personal knowledge), isn’t in the text. Historical method is unequivocal here: you cannot affirm what you do not know; and you should not affirm what the evidence suggests might even be false.
At the same point in our discussion, MacDonald claims “in the Acts of the Apostles we have a reference to James the Lord’s brother,” and cites Josephus-expert Steve Mason in support. Mason really is a historian. But in fact Mason’s analysis on this point is wholly contrary to all facts, evidence, and logic—contradictions plainly verifiable even by an amateur—indeed his analysis is itself even more bizarre than MacDonald’s attempt to rely on it. For MacDonald, unlike Mason, is a fully-qualified expert in New Testament literature and thus should well know Acts makes no mention of any brother of Jesus named James, and only relates the death of a completely different James, in a completely different way, by a completely different authority, with a completely different purpose and outcome, in a completely different year (see Mason on Josephus on James; Acts refers to a James being beheaded by the political authorities two decades earlier than the James Josephus describes being stoned by the religious authorities). In no possible way are these accounts related. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before (indeed under peer review), the author of Acts’ ignorance of the story produced in Josephus is nearly conclusive evidence against Josephus ever having connected it with Christ—those two words cannot have been in the text when the author of Acts read the Antiquities. If they had been, that story would very probably be in Acts.
These two assertions by MacDonald thus seem a lot like rationalizations invented ad hoc to try and rescue his strange theories. We need to treat these kinds of claims as historical questions requiring proper methodological and empirical inquiry, not as convenient excuses we can make up on the fly to defend some idea we happen to be committed to. That’s apologetic methodology, not historical methodology (see The Difference Between a Historian and an Apologist). Yet here MacDonald appears to be acting more like an apologist and less like a historian.
Near the close of our duscussion, right before the two hour mark, our host asks Dr. MacDonald, “What is your probability on historicity? Is it still 80 to 20 like you said in the original debate?” (referring to our discussion on the PineCreek show). MacDonald now says, “No, it’s probably like 92 to 8 probability; but historians are not going to commit themselves to a 100 percent,” and he concedes, “I have to be open to things I don’t understand, but for me the evidence is compelling that there was a historical Jesus, who very early on, in various ways was mythologized.”
But notice MacDonald presented no actual evidence of that in this discussion, much less compelling evidence. He offered fancy systems of speculation about Josephus, that are provably false, and don’t even logically argue for historicity anyway. He offered false premises and unevidenced assumptions (about my not-actual-dependence on “Gnosticism,” for example, or regarding the value of historical facts about Jesus to the rhetoric of Paul). He leans on gullibility (1 John is authentic? Really?), a gullibility rejected by pretty much all other scholars on record who aren’t fundamentalists—hardly anyone offers any good reason anymore to believe 1 John isn’t a second century fake. And he never really responds to the actual peer-reviewed theory of non-historicity actually on the table, or any of the evidence for it. He offers instead strange, idiosyncratic ideas about “Q” and how it supposedly somehow (though no actually logical “how” is presented) evinces a real Jesus rather than just another mythical one built out of all the same mythical tropes for all the same general reasons. Contrast this shadow-puppet-theatre of a case with how we prove the historicity of literally every other actual historical person (for an all-in-one survey of examples, see Chapter 5 of Jesus from Outer Space). Why does Jesus need this weird, convoluted, speculation-stacked method of desperately maintaining he existed, when no other real person does?
The evasiveness of cases like this is the most telling to me. Around minute 1:27 MacDonald complains that “we don’t have anybody in the early church who was arguing that Jesus was not a human being.” This reveals his inexplicable refusal to actually examine the thesis he is responding to. Like most historicity apologists, secular and devout, he just won’t listen to or read what I am actually arguing. So how can he produce any informed response to it? Why does everyone defending historicity act like this? It cannot be for sound reasons, as they would all agree, were this a debate on anything else, that such behavior is unacceptable and can never produce a sound defense of anything. They would all agree such behavior is more indicative of emotional rationalization, motivated reasoning, a resistance to empirical and rational historical reasoning rather than a pursuit of it.
The fact of the matter is that my thesis is that all Christians, from day one, believed Jesus was “a human being.” Paul outright says this multiple times. But what he says is that Jesus only became human for a brief time to accomplish a single, specific, cosmic task. The question is therefore not whether Jesus was believed to ever have been a mortal human man (indeed, even a Davidic Jew); the only pertinent question, the question my entire book On the Historicity of Jesus explores, is where that happened. Was it on Earth, witnessed by “disciples”? Or was it in Satan’s realm, only revealed later to “apostles”? (For a concise summary see Jesus from Outer Space.) MacDonald is thus simply not even addressing my thesis. Nor does he know about all the vast evidence I collect proving not just the probability of my thesis, but its contextual plausibility as well. Nothing about my proposal is “weird” or “unprecedented” in the actual context of Christianity’s origin (I empirically prove this across two whole chapters, through forty-eight enumerated Elements of fact: OHJ, Chapters 4 and 5).
When will historians respond to my actual theory? When will they allow themselves to be aware of (and thus able finally to discuss) the extensive evidence I have documented for it? What are they running from? Why are they hiding from all this? Why do they refuse to even look at it? What motivates such unreasonable, unhistorical behavior? I am perplexed. But whatever the reason, it can have nothing to do with a valid historical methodology.