Vinny on "Why I Am Agnostic About the Historical Jesus"

Although I hesitate to do this again, here we go. See what you think. What am I missing?


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I wonder if it's reasonable to assume that Paul simply piggybacked on a semi-successful heretical movement, to propagate his own similar ideas and simply ended up making it even more successful. (I mean, it's no secret that there were pharisaic traditions that believed, for instance, in the resurrection of the dead.)

Unknown said...

So in order to find the historical Jesus, we have to start looking for the historical Paul.

What methodology is used to date Paul, besides the anti-Marcionite Acts of the Apostles?

There are two markers off the top of my head for dating Paul internally. One is the mention of an "Aretas" in 2 Cor 11:23. This is assumed to be Aretas IV, but this Aretas didn't have a governor (or ethnarch) working for him in Damascus, as Aretas IV didn't have control over Damascus in the 1st century. It belonged to the Romans.

Aretas III, however, did have control over Damascus... but he lived prior to the Roman conquest of the area in the 1st century BCE.

The other marker for dating Paul is in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. Paul mentions how the Jews killed their prophets and Jesus - and how God's wrath came (or will come) upon them for it. This is similar to Jesus' parable of the Wicked Tenants at Mark 12:1-9. The Jews kill God's prophets and then his son, so the wrath of God will fall upon the Jews: alluding to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This one of the indicators for Mark being written after 70 CE. Since this can be used to date Mark after 70, and 1 Thes 2:14-16 is the same subject matter, then this would also date 1 Thessalonians to being after 70.

Though either case could be interpolations into Paul's letters. Who is the first Christian witness to a collection of Paul's letters? The "heretic" Marcion. And that brings us back to why Acts of the Apostles was written.

Unknown said...

Just to be clear, I have no idea when Paul wrote his letters. Both of those markers could be harmonized if the entire Jesus scenario played out as it does in the Toledot Jesu (i.e. around 60 BCE in the Hasmonean kingdom) and Paul's letters were manipulated after 70.

The only thing that I'm relatively certain of is that whenever Paul wrote, our current collection of Paul's letters get their final form in Catholic hands towards the end of the 2nd century.

Anonymous said...

Dating the gospels and the letters of Paul are notoriously difficult. It's tough to do, granted. But there are hints, like the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-6 and Galatians itself that Paul knew the early disciples, if we accept these two letters from Paul. If we don't we might as well throw out the historical Paul too. You see, there is external evidence that everyone is looking for. But there is also internal evidence. They must be harmonized.

One way to date the NT is too see how the apocalyptic predictions of the coming "Son of Man" were watered down. The earlier documents spoke of an immediate coming (in I Thess 4-5 Paul said he himself will experience it) while later documents clearly moved the goal posts to later and later dates, something I document for a chapter in The Christan Delusion.

Adrian said...

Let me understand the back-and-forth which appears to be spread over several sites. It looks like you're saying that there was a Christian church outside of Paul and his teachings and that he was not the originator. Okay, fair enough. I think there's plenty of evidence for this. It's hard to say what exactly they believed but it does look like Paul was accepted as a respected teacher of Christian beliefs, probably equal to that of the other leaders. Is that fair?

So you must deny that Paul is the actual author of the seven letters usually attributed to him, or deny that he existed too

Why must anyone deny this? I'm not aware of any mythicist that disagrees or seems to have any problem with it.

in my opinion there is only one way to deny there was a historical founder of the Jesus cult and that is to reject the whole NT tradition in total

Again, I don't understand why you try to make these sweeping claims, portraying mythicists as rejecting observations or closing their eyes & minds to evidence. It seems uncalled for. I don't see anyone doing this and I don't see any reason why anyone should be doing this (if that's what you're saying).

As you've no doubt done with Paul's writings, we start by asking who wrote the gospels, why did they write them and who is their audience.

We don't know who exactly wrote them though they were almost certainly written by faithful church members. They were writing to instruct and inspire and I think we all agree that historical accuracy was far from their minds. If Dennis MacDonald's analysis is right, almost everything in the gospels were written as a retelling of Homer which should tell us historical accuracy was a very minor consideration. Indeed, it's worth asking if the characters in Homeric retellings are any more historical than the original characters. Maybe, maybe not, but there's reason enough to consider the question seriously and not deal in these caricatures and absolutist-style arguments.

So can we "throw away" the gospels? No, but without evidence and argument we don't need to view them as a retelling of an historical Jesus.

I also find it disagreeable to portray mythicists as sweeping away huge books as if we were denying evidence when, if you look at the writings of Historicists on what they think remains of the original Jesus is often distills down to a handful of sentences. They have cut away virtually all of the gospels on their own without any help from mythicists. People like Price just ask whether the remaining bullet points are really supported by evidence after all and the answer, again independent of mythicism, is "no, they are not." The two positions are not so far apart as your absolutist caricatures makes it appear.

As to the question of differing Christian messages, this is something that's perfectly consistent and well understood if there was no earthly Jesus who could be consulted or quoted and is just what you'd expect if you have several people who have instead claimed knowledge via "revelation". Doherty talks about this several times in his silences - no doctrinal disputes are ever settled via quoting Jesus, talking to those who met Jesus, or deferring to those who learned directly from Jesus, even though there are several occasions where this is something that we'd expect to happen.

Perhaps I'm missing some part of the argument but I fail to see how it does anything other than weaken the historicial Jesus case.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments. I'll respond later tonight or tomorrow. I hate trying to defend something from history since anything can be rationally denied in history even if it happened, because history does not cough up it's truths very easily at all.

Anonymous said...

Which, by the way, is a good reason to reject the historical claims in the Bible itself.

Adrian said...


I hate trying to defend something from history since anything can be rationally denied in history even if it happened, because history does not cough up it's truths very easily at all.

It sounds like you recognize that this must be a question of probabilities, something I see a lot from mythicists but rarely if ever from historicists. I think the discussion would be a lot more civil and productive if people weren't making inflated claims, caricaturing opponents or claiming certainty where it isn't warranted.

I take it that you are trying to set a positive tone and I hope that you and everyone else follows, thank you.

Vinny said...

I don’t want to accuse you of missing anything John, however, I do think there is one significant divergence that needs to be identified. The question is this: did Paul view the Christians that he had persecuted and the apostles in Jerusalem as men who had followed the flesh and blood Jesus around Palestine while listening to his preaching and witnessing his miracles or did Paul view them as people who, like himself, had a visionary experience of the risen Christ without interacting with the earthly Jesus? One of the reasons for my agnosticism is that I do not see a compelling reason for choosing the former interpretation over the latter. My reading of Paul leaves it an open question as to which he thought.

Adrian said...


Maybe I have missed something - are you & John debating whether Paul thought the other apostles knew Jesus in person or just in visions?

If in person, how could someone like Paul achieve prominence since he had never met Jesus? If in visions, where were the people that knew Jesus in person?

shane said...

All i can say is that Pauls teachings and precepts dont seem consistent with the gospel teachings.

The gospels central theme seems to be about works while Pauls theme in his letters is mostly about faith?

Jesus said-"thoughs who forgive will be forgiven-"those who show mercy will receive mercy-"and the measure you give is the measure you get back.
Non of these teachings are followed by "only if you have faith"!

He also said the law will not pass away until heaven and earth do.

Where as Pauls teachings pertain to faith apart from works, and he rejects the observation of the law.

Paul seems to be in disagreement with alot of Jesus saying and also with the book of James!

I have read that many scholars believe that most christain foundations are based on Paulianity rather then the original gospel message.
This might shed some light on whether Paul taught the same as the other apostles or if his precepts are of his own invention!

Vinny said...


I am not sure whether Paul thought that anyone he knew had encountered Jesus in any way other than a vision. However, I think John assumes that Paul understood the other apostles to have been people who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry. I don't think John and I have been debating that point but I wanted to make it explicit since it figures into my agnosticism.

Adrian said...

Thanks Vinny. I'm not as well read as most people here and sometimes points go right over my head.

Vinny said...


Multiple comments--multiple posts-- multiple blogs.


I think that is a good point although I suspect like most points it might be used to support arguments on either side.

shane said...


You may be right, but i failed to read all the earlier posts first.

It was just an observation i made when i was still a believer.

Steven Carr said...

Of course, people like James McGrath claim that Judas, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus existed , but refuse to produce any evidence for their views.

This is why they have no alternative except to call mythicists names, because they have no arguments to use instead of abuse.

Anonymous said...

I can't spend a great deal of time on this since I have repeatedly on different occassions.

Tyro said: Okay, fair enough. I think there's plenty of evidence for this. It's hard to say what exactly they believed but it does look like Paul was accepted as a respected teacher of Christian beliefs, probably equal to that of the other leaders. Is that fair?

Yes, that's fair. but Steve Carr continues to ask for evidence of this and evidence of that. What he's doing is asking for there ti be external or independent evidence for this or that.

What evidence is it you're talking about Tyro? Really? How do you know there is evidence for what you just wrote? What you're doing is accepting internal evidence from the texts themselves. Now why would you do that. Are these things externally attested?

There are always people in any group who see the logical conclusions for something way ahead of others. David Hume did that with regard to empiricism. Because of it he couldn't say he actually sees causation.

Bob Price is another one who is ahead of the game. He's writing a book that denies Paul wrote any letters. He is one thinker I agree with on this. He's going to be denying the historicity of the apostle Paul, basically. I don't know what we'll have left when he claims that Paul didn't write any letter except to say he didn't exist.

Anonymous said...

Vinny & Tyro, as to the silence of Paul about Jesus, have you read Eddy and Boyd's book, The Jesus Legend, chapter five? While I cannot agree with all of their conclusions they do make some good points. It is not the case that Paul knew nothing about Jesus based on letters agreed to be genuine.

This, I grant in a thorny issue since Paul's letters were written before the gospels. But scholars accept that there was a document called Q that formed the basis of them.

At best history gives us only scant evidence for some of our most firmly held conclusions. Scant evidence then is at best what we can hope to find. Scant evidence is easy to deny. But I find at least enough of it to think there was a Jesus, who was the historical founder of the original Jesus cult. That's all I claim. And since that's my claim I think I can go beyond it and say this founder was nothing more or less than a failed doomsday prophet, which are a dime a dozen, and to date, their messages have all been wrong.

You wouldn't believe the evidence within Judaism stemming from Jeremiah's prophecy of the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian destruction in 586 BCE how many documents and how many movements that were doomsday ones stretching down to the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the second century. He was proclaimed the Messiah too. Zerubbabel was proclaimed the Messiah by Haggai and Zechariah. There's Isaiah 24ff and Daniel, and the Sibylline Oracles, Testament of Abraham, 2nd Baruch, The Pharisees, Essenes, John the Baptist, the Qumran community, the Sicari, Zealots, Judas the Galilean, Theudas, and still others. it was the Jewish Sitz im Leben.

Scant evidence? Yes. But convincing to me.

Anonymous said...

In an attempt "in the interest of conservative theology, to reduce to an absurdity the purely negative tendencies of the rationalistic criticism of the Scriptures then in vogue" Jean-Baptiste Pérès (1752 - 1840) wrote a book called Did Napoleon ever exist?.

It generated a lot of discussion. That's because there is only scant evidence for historical claims. But come on, do we really want to deny that Napoleon existed? We are FORCED to accept scant evidence for historical claims or else we may end up denying such things that Napoleon existed.

Steven Carr said...

The existence of Q is now highly disputed.

And Boyd and Eddy do not make good points about the silence of Paul about Judas, Lazarus, Joseph of Armithea, Nicodemus, Simon of Cyrene, Thomas, Mary Magdalene ete etc...

Not enough to overturn the plain fact that the first mention of Jesus acting in history is either as a rock in the desert, or telling his followers how to access his body and blood in a ritual cultic meal.

Steven Carr said...

Oh dear....

We have newspaper records from the time about Napoleon.

Gosh, people must be desperate if they are having to resort to this sort of analogy.

No wonder mythicism is alive and flourishing when opponents prove themselves unable to even think of good arguments against it.

Steven Carr said...

Yes, that's fair. but Steve Carr continues to ask for evidence of this and evidence of that.

Spoken like somebody who is sure that a second gunman shot JFK, and scoffs at demands for evidence.

Just find a CHRISTIAN in the first century , outside the Novels, who had ever heard of Judas, Thomas,Mary Magdalene, Simon of Cyrene etc etc.

These are ghost people.

Anonymous said...

Steve, do you deny the whole NT? Do you deny that Paul wrote any letter attributed to him? You should.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I could point you to probably hundreds of ancient documents that mention the names of people but they are only mentioned in these documents. Do you then claim that when these documents mention the named of these people that they did not exist?

Anonymous said...

For clarification, I do not think Judas or Joseph existed as reported in the NT. I do so for textual reasons, They are at best characterizations of a person, at best. And that may go for others named. But I do think the burden of proof, given the scant nature of historical claims, is on the person who denies they existed. I grant the textual evidence is prima facie evidence that they did until shown otherwise.

You see, that's what we MUST do with scant historical evidence. And I do not think the mythicists have met that burden of proof with regard to Jesus.

Vinny said...


My local library had a copy of Boyd & Eddy’s Lord or Legend?: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma, which I understand to be a popular apologetic version of Jesus Legend. I thought it was pretty awful but perhaps they lay things out better in the longer work.

I get the impression that the scholarly consensus is not quite as strong on “Q” as it once was, but I am not qualified to make an independent judgment. I agree that “Q” points towards a historical Jesus, but what I have read about it so far is not quite enough to push me off agnosticism.

I don’t think that it is unreasonable to believe in a historical Jesus and I might end up coming down on that side of the question. I think there is some data that is better explained by a historical Jesus, but I also think there is some that is not.

I am not persuaded that “burden of proof” is a particularly useful concept in situations like this. “Burden of proof” is a necessary concept in a court of law because juries have only two available choices, “guilty” or “not guilty.” They are not allowed to say “possibly guilty” or “probably guilty” or “beats me.” However, “possibly” and “probably” are perfectly legitimate words to use with respect to the historical Jesus.

Adrian said...


Re burden of proof - I'm not so sure. Who has the burden with Romulus & Remus or Odysseus? The character name "Jesus" seems like that of Adam, Job and Moses - chosen for dramatic purposes rather than given at birth. His actions are as fantastic and mythological as them (and I'd bet you don't accept most of them as historical), and as MacDonald argues, are a retelling of Homer. In short, everything about the stories have the hallmarks of fiction. It's not a slam dunk but it does push a burden onto historicists. Both sides can't point to a few observations and say it supports their case, they need to first present a positive case (both sides do this) and then deal with all of the evidence which appears to undermine their case (something I've never seen of an historicist).

While I cannot agree with all of their conclusions they do make some good points. It is not the case that Paul knew nothing about Jesus based on letters agreed to be genuine

I'm sorry, I haven't read that. I've become jaded by many disappointing results tracking down these books. Will you hold it up as the definitive work and defend it against any criticisms?

Since I am pretty uneducated here, Tom Verena and Neil Godfrey sound very well informed and are both writing extensive blog series on the topic, perhaps they could respond. If there's an online link or something that can be summarized I would be delighted to read & comment.

For clarification, I do not think Judas or Joseph existed as reported in the NT.

When you claim that mythicists must reject the NT, I wonder just how much of it that you accept.

It seems strange to me that you can casually dismiss huge swaths of the NT with an airy wave and yet claim certainty with the few remaining snippets. Isn't this what you say about how Christians dismiss the evidence of other gods?

But come on, do we really want to deny that Napoleon existed?

And the hyperbole, inflated claims and exaggerated analogies start...

If you were interested in a fair and honest dialogue, you must admit that the Napoleon/Jesus comparison is totally absurd yet here you are making it. Same thing with McGrath. Why is that? To me it appears as if you are unable (or to be generous, unwilling) to deal fairly & honestly, something I'd expect if you did have as strong a case as you claim.

Steve, do you deny the whole NT? Do you deny that Paul wrote any letter attributed to him? You should.

Oh dear, the "deny" language is back. And we had such a promising start, too.

What happened to that language of probability, of saying that rational arguments can be made on both sides? The retreat to "denial", inflated certainty and absolutist language looks like a way to hide weaknesses and smear opponents rather than deal with what they have to say.