And the Beat Goes On: More Bluffing and Lying for Jesus

The misfortune of a flat learning curve  

In my article here two weeks ago, Three Christian Gods Missing in Action, and last week, Bluffing, Talking Piffle and Lying About Jesus, I did not discuss Jesus mythicism, i.e., the arguments made by some scholars that Jesus was a mythical figure. Our resident troll, Don Camp, responded at length to the first article, and my rebuttal was the second. When he jumped back in to continue the conversation, he commented, “Everyone here seems to have bought into the Jesus myth myth.” Which can be done, he pointed out, by “writing off the textual evidence for the Jesus event.” 


Strange, my topic wasn’t Jesus mythicism, and I doubt very much that “everyone here” at the DC Blog accepts it, but this was Mr. Camp’s attention grabber. He doesn’t seem to grasp that many of us accept that there might have been a Galilean peasant preacher, but whoever and whatever he was has been hopelessly obscured by the layers of myth, folklore, fantasy, and magical thinking piled on by the gospel writers. A real Jesus could have become mythicized. Virgin birth and resurrection, for example, are symptoms of that. In the Wikipedia article on resurrection beliefs in the ancient world, we find this:


"The concept of resurrection is found in the writings of some ancient non-Abrahamic religions in the Middle East. A few extant Egyptian and Canaanite writings allude to dying and rising gods such as Osiris and Baal


“In ancient Greek religion a number of men and women became physically immortal as they were resurrected from the dead. Asclepius was killed by Zeus, only to be resurrected and transformed into a major deity. Achilles, after being killed, was snatched from his funeral pyre by his divine mother Thetis and resurrected, brought to an immortal existence in either Leuce, the Elysian plains or the Islands of the Blessed. Memnon who was killed by Achilles, seems to have received a similar fate. AlcmeneCastorHeracles, and Melicertes, were also among the figures sometimes considered to have been resurrected to physical immortality.” 


Apologists have argued that none of these examples are exactly like the story of Jesus, but even so it’s a tough sell that “our resurrection is the real one,” as one Christian told me with a straight face. Don Camp would probably argue likewise. Robert Conner pointed out that, according to the gospel accounts themselves, no one saw Jesus resurrect. To which Camp responded: “If that is all you've got, it is an over used distraction. There were people who saw him alive after he was crucified and buried. That was my point.”

“There were people who saw him alive after he was crucified and buried.” How does he know that? Camp says that Jesus mythicism is possible only if people “write off all textual evidence for the Jesus event and everyone associated with it.” By textual evidence Camp means the gospels and epistles. This is where we’re dealing with his flat learning curve: the gospels are evidence only for what their authors believed—not for what actually happened in the life of Jesus—as Robert Conner states, and this is hardly anything radical:

“…the majority of mainstream NT scholars agree the gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus, that they likely contain zero eyewitness testimony, and that they are conflicting, apologetic confections written not as history but to address the concerns of the moment.”


John Beversluis has also written:

“Like many people, I grew up thinking that these books were written by disciples who followed Jesus around and wrote down what he said and did. It was not until I was in seminary that I discovered to my dismay that this is not true and that we actually have no idea who wrote them. Mark and Luke were not even disciples. We do know that the synoptic Gospels were written late in the first century (or early in the second) and that John was written about 100 (or possibly as late as 120). This means that they were all written between (roughly) 70 and 120—and therefore anywhere from forty to eighty (or even ninety) years after the death of Jesus, so they could not have been written by any eyewitnesses—disciples or otherwise….the synoptic Gospels contain many errors: factual, historical, scientific, philosophical, ethical, chronological, numerical, mathematical, geographical, and prophetic. They also contain many contradictions, inconsistencies, and other discrepancies.” 

[I highly recommend John Loftus’ recent post here, the Preface and Introduction to seven chapters written by John Beversluis, now being published for the first time posthumously.]

But Camp is sure “…there were people who saw him alive after he was crucified….” The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at 16:8, i.e., without the fake ending, and without any such report. Matthew inspires little confidence, given his story that lots of dead people came alive when Jesus died, then walked around Jerusalem on Easter morning. Moreover, Matthew says that some of the eleven disciples “doubted" when Jesus appeared to them. The story grew with Luke’s telling: Jesus appeared, unrecognized, to two disciples on their way to Emmaus. He vanished as soon as he broke bread with them, and when he appeared later to the disciples, some “thought they were seeing a ghost.” In John’s version, Mary Magdalene bumps into Jesus just outside the tomb, but doesn’t recognize him; later he shows up to the disciples in a locked room and breathes the holy spirit upon them. Too much woo! 

Robert Conner is right that these authors borrowed ancient ghost story motifs (Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story). These stories are flimsy, as scholars have noted for a long, long time. All the details in these accounts can be credited to novelistic imagination; there is no documentation whatever that ties them to history.

Yet Camp asks: “For how many other individuals of antiquity do you have better primary source material?” Well, there are others. This is another demonstration of his flat learning curve. Richard Carrier, who has a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University, has called out others for making similar claims; here’s a long quote:


“A greater gaffe in defense of Jesus’ historicity is to make claims that are conspicuously opposite the truth of the matter, as when E.P. Sanders boasts that ‘the sources for Jesus are better . . . than those that deal with Alexander [the Great]’. [The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993), p. 3] A more suicidal remark for his case could hardly be imagined. 


“Unlike Jesus, we have over half a dozen relatively objective historians discussing the history of Alexander the Great (most notably Diodorus, Dionysius, Rufus, Trogus, Plutarch and more). These are not romances or propagandists, least of all fanatical worshipers, or anyone concerned about dogma, but disinterested historical writers employing some of the recognized skills of critical analysis of their day on a wide body of sources they had available that we do not. Which doesn’t mean we trust everything they say, but we still cannot name even one such person for Jesus, and ‘none’ is not ‘more’ than half a dozen. 


“Lest one complain that these historians wrote ‘too late’, this is actually of minor significance because, unlike Jesus, they still had contemporary and eyewitness sources to work from. In fact, our best historian of Alexander is Arrian, who though he wrote five hundred years later, nevertheless employed an explicit method of using only three eyewitness sources (two of them actual generals of Alexander who wrote accounts of their adventures with him). He names and identifies these sources, explains how he used them to generate a more reliable account, and discusses their relative merits. 


“That alone is quite a great deal more than we have for Jesus, for whom we have not a single named eyewitness source in any of the accounts of him, much less a discussion of how those sources were used or what their relative merits were.” (On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, pp. 21-22)


We cannot take the gospels seriously as history because we don’t know where the authors got their information—other than from what they assumed the Old Testament could provide. And, of course, Matthew and Luke copied much of Mark’s gospel—so that was a source for them. But Mark was silent about his sources, although we can see how heavily he relied on the Old Testament. We simply draw a blank as we wonder how to verify anything in the gospels. Again: we lack that crucial thing, contemporaneous documentation. 


“No one trusts documents that come decades after the fact by unknown authors… Every reasonable person expects and requires extensive corroboration by contemporary documents and confirmed eyewitness accounts.” Richard Carrier, Why I Am Not a Christian, p. 50)    

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  But Camp dismisses the need for such early documentation, one reason being that I wouldn’t accept them even if they existed! And you want me to believe that you would accept them as reliable if there were such?” If a transcript of the trial of Jesus turned up in a Roman archive, or an incident report of Jesus cleansing the Temple, why not accept them? Or if letters were found, written by figures named in the gospels, describing encounters with Jesus, why not accept them? 


Camp is confident his case is made because the apostle Paul—who never met Jesus—mentions “the Jesus event,” as do other people named in the New Testament:


“You have Paul who was writing 20 years after the Jesus event. He included in his writing reference to real people who were the companions of Jesus and who affirmed the Jesus event.”


But, curiously enough, Paul himself never speaks of a “Jesus event”—if by that you mean Jesus of Nazareth and his preaching. Yes, he makes reference to the risen Christ, and to companions of Jesus, e.g., Peter, whom he condemned severely in Galatians, where he also claims that he received no knowledge of Jesus from human sources—despite his mention of once spending fifteen days with Peter. Paul’s “Jesus event” took place in his head, i.e., his visions; he tells us that explicitly. It’s common, of course, to assume that this Peter whom Paul mentions is the one we are familiar with through the gospels. But we don’t have contemporaneous documentation to verify Peter as portrayed in the gospels, any more than we do for Jesus. 


Camp makes this extraordinary claim:


“The Gospels were not written to you. They were written for people who lived at the same time as the authors. They were written for people who knew the authors. They were available to some people who had known Jesus personally and could have called out the authors if what they wrote had been wrong.”


Yes, of course, the gospels were aimed at contemporaries, and maybe some of the people knew the authors. But there is no way he can verify this: “They were available to some people who had known Jesus personally and could have called out the authors if what they wrote had been wrong.” The gospels were written after the disastrous Jewish-Roman war (66-73 CE), making it extremely unlikely that people who had known Jesus would have read the gospels. Camp’s comments also assume that a fact-checking mentality was common, and that the gospel authors were trying to write history. There’s a reason that Carrier said this of the authors who wrote about Alexander: “These are not romances or propagandists, least of all fanatical worshipers, or anyone concerned about dogma…”


This is an example of Camp overreaching to defend the faith, playing “fast and loose with history.” Yes, there’s a flat learning curve: he doesn’t seem to even try to learn how history is written: the documentation that is required. We cannot trust faith propaganda pieces written decades later. So how absurd that Camp, of all people, states: “No one plays as fast and loose with history as Carrier.” There seems to be a high level of anti-Carrier alarm in Mr. Camp’s circle of apologists, probably because of Carrier’s astounding command of Jesus studies. On the Historicity of Jesus is a tour de force, more than 600 pages that explain, in considerable detail, why the gospels cannot be trusted. Homework suggestion for Camp: read pp. 254-260, on What Counts as Evidence. And pp. 65-234, in which Carrier describes 48 background elements for understanding Christian origins. 


What a strange thing to say, by the way: “The Gospels were not written to you. They were written for people who lived at the same time as the authors.” So God did not anticipate that the story of Jesus would need to be told for two thousand years? Do the Gideons have it all wrong, giving away two billion copies of the Bible? We can remove the Bible from church altars? It would seem that God didn’t anticipate that critical thinkers would one day develop minimum standards for writing history, including contemporaneous documentation. Otherwise we might have far more substance in the gospels.


At the end of his rebuttal, Camp responded to my criticism of human sacrifice at the heart of Christian faith:


“I would think you would know Christian theology better than that. God did not require a human sacrifice. God required a God sacrifice. And that is why Jesus as God in the flesh is crucial to the Jesus event. But you know that. I think. If you don't then you did not get very deep into Christian theology in your theological training.”


Well, indeed, Don Camp is very deep into Christian theology, as is “mired.” God required a God sacrifice is theobabble, more talking piffle. The burden of proof is on Camp to demonstrate that theologians didn’t just make this up. That’s pretty slick actually: evade the grotesque human sacrifice by relabeling it a God Sacrifice. Would Mark’s Jesus have approved? “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Once again, those of us who respond to the real world without theological jargon make this simple request: “Please tell us where we can find reliable, verifiable, objective evidence for this claim, and all theists must agree, Yes, that’s where to find it.” Will devout Jews and Muslims back up the God-Sacrifice idea? Indeed, do all Christian theologians agree? They’ve been arguing about doctrine for centuries—and I did get deeply enough into Christian theology to understand that. Here Camp reminds me of a line in John Beversluis’ article: “I left his classroom wondering whether theologians could be sued for malpractice.”


Don Camp does play a role here at the Debunking Christianity Blog. Again the words of John Beversluis: “The one thing more damaging to Christianity than a good argument against it is a bad argument for it.”




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 450 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.

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