Fabricating Jesus — An Interview with Former Minister David Chumney

Jesus collage of iconsHow the gospel stories in the New Testament came to be.

David Chumney spent almost three decades as an ordained Presbyterian minister before quietly exiting the ministry and Christianity itself. He now describes himself as agnostic, but his exodus from the Church didn’t end his fascination with New Testament studies or his quest to separate history from mythology in the biblical record. He tackles the fraught topic in his new book, Jesus Eclipsed.

Recently I interviewed David Fitzgerald, author of the three-volume series, Jesus: Mything in Action. Fitzgerald takes a position held by very few biblical scholars—that the Bible’s stories about Jesus lack any historical kernel, however small. Chumney disagrees, but acknowledges that Fitzgerald may be closer to the truth than most Christians would like to think:

If someone were to ask me, “Is there credible historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed?” I would say, “Yes, but precious little.” If someone were to ask me, “Is some of what the gospels preserve about Jesus a product of pious imagination and religious devotion?” I would say, “Yes, nearly all of it.” In other words, I am convinced that Jesus of Nazareth really did exist, but I am equally convinced that the Gospels comprise, as Randel Helms has said, “largely fictional accounts concerning an historical figure.”

The “precious little” that Chumney finds historically persuasive includes a handful of passing references to James, the brother of Jesus, and a crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Other references provide ample evidence about emerging Christian beliefs, he says, but no direct evidence of the man shrouded in the mists of historiography and mythology.

What about the rest of what people think they know about Jesus? What about his lineage and birth in Bethlehem, the incident when he clears money changers from the temple, his reputation as a healer, or his baptism? What about that final week when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, is arrested, put on trial, and led to his execution? Elements of the passion story have decorated church walls for over a millennium as the Stations of the Cross. If these gospel stories about Jesus aren’t gospel truth, what are they? Why do they exist, and where do they come from?

Chumney makes a persuasive argument that many of the stories in the Gospels are adapted from earlier biblical texts (i.e., what Christians call the Old Testament). Early Christians, having concluded that Jesus was the prophesied Christ, sought to construct what must be the details of his birth, life, and death from the content—and even words—of the Jewish Scriptures.

Tarico: The subtitle of your book, Jesus Eclipsed, is “How searching the scriptures got in the way of recounting the facts.” What exactly does that mean?

Chumney: As far back as its story can be traced, the church has claimed that events in the life of Jesus were prophesied or prefigured in Scripture. After he was crucified, the followers of Jesus searched the Scriptures (through which they believed they could discern God’s purpose) in the effort to make sense of Jesus’ suffering and death. They found passages in the Psalms and the Prophets that spoke about the suffering of the righteous, and those passages seemed to encompass what had happened to Jesus. Reading particular passages in that way led the followers of Jesus to believe that his suffering and death had been part of God’s plan. Once believers accepted the idea that these tragic events had taken place “in accordance with the Scriptures,” they used the same interpretive techniques to suggest that other events in the life of Jesus had fulfilled Old Testament prophecies as well. In other words, they made up stories to show that events in Jesus’ life “foretold in Scripture” had now come to pass. As a result, what we find in the Gospels are not always genuine recollections of actual events handed down by oral tradition but quite often invented memories of fictitious events worked up from Old Testament texts. Searching the Scriptures as an act of faith became more important than recounting whatever facts may have been available. Then, within a short time, those facts were forgotten, so most of what remains are stories designed to instill Christian faith, with little if any historical basis.

Tarico: You quote German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who said this in his 1926 book, Jesus and the Word, “We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either.”  What does Bultmann mean when he says that early sources weren’t interested in the life and personality of Jesus?

Chumney: Through his analysis of the many anecdotes that make up the gospel narratives, Bultmann showed that these individual units of tradition can tell us more about the needs and concerns of the early church than they do about Jesus. For example, most stories that describe some conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees reflect situations that only developed several decades after the time of Jesus, when the church began to disassociate itself from the synagogue. Thus, the Gospels shouldn’t be seen as journalistic reports about the life of Jesus but as a collection of religious tracts designed to cultivate faith. And, as we’ve said, many of those stories owe their existence not to the memory of some actual event during the lifetime of Jesus but to the artful repackaging of some earlier scriptural text.

Tarico: To the modern mind, that seems deliberately duplicitous, dishonest, even immoral. Words like plagiarism and forgery come to mind.

Chumney: Let me give an example not mentioned in my book that may be helpful here. Most Christian fundamentalists would insist that the account in John 9, where Jesus heals a blind man, is the accurate report of an actual event. But, whether they realize it or not, they often use that story to describe their own experience of salvation. How do they do that? They do it by singing “Amazing Grace,” one line of which affirms, “I once was lost, but now I’m found [like the prodigal son], “was blind, but now I see” [like the man in John 9]. Notice how the artful repackaging of two earlier texts is no longer being used solely to recount stories from the distant past but instead to depict a more recent event!

As I’ve noted in my book, theologian David Strauss identified this practice 180 years ago when he talked about “finding details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes.” I’m not really interested in criticizing the evangelists for using this creative literary technique; I just want to be sure that those engaged in historical research recognize the prevalence of the practice and evaluate its use accordingly. Two modern literary critics have done a wonderful job explaining the technique, Frank Kermode and Northrup Frye. Kermode shows how “the old texts have…generated the new narrative” (Genesis of Secrecy, 105), and Frye reminds us that “the Gospel writers care nothing about the kind of evidence that would interest a biographer…they care only about comparing events in their accounts of Jesus with what the Old Testament, as they read it, said would happen to the Messiah” (Great Code, 41).

If historical Jesus experts would take such insights more seriously, they would have to admit that many stories about Jesus likely have no historical basis.

Tarico: As the quote from Bultmann illustrates, scholars long ago stopped assuming that the New Testament stories were true and started trying to sort wheat from chaff. Your book quotes literally hundreds of sources and scholars whose opinions to a greater or lesser degree approximate your own, and you urge readers to explore nearly two centuries of inquiry into the historical Jesus.

Chumney: Yes, but it can be tricky because there’s so much out there. A good place to begin for anyone new to the topic is Dominic Crossan’s book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Then, for those who want to dig a little deeper, I recommend Robert Price’s book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. The notes in Price’s book introduce readers to a wealth of research that would take years to digest. However, before going down that path, readers should turn next to Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he surveys the first 150 years of historical Jesus studies. (Find the “first complete edition” © 2001, because it includes chapters not found in the earlier editions). Reading these three books offers a good introduction to major players and key issues, including the mythicist position.

Tarico: You put stories about Jesus into several categories: impossible, possible, plausible and probable. And you say that scholars—both historicists and mythicists—often blur the distinction between hypotheses that are plausible and those that are probable. Can you explain?

Chumney: Historicists (think Bart Ehrman) and mythicists (think Robert Price) agree that the historian’s task is to establish what is probable. Still, while there’s consensus about the appropriate goal, a lot of disagreement remains about how to get there. Here’s how I go about it. The evidence can be divided into two piles, what’s possible and what’s impossible. Serious historians are going to take any stories about miraculous and supernatural events and place them into the pile marked “impossible.” Material that remains in the pile marked “possible” must be analyzed further, and that’s where the trouble can begin.

The next step is to decide what material can be placed into the pile marked “plausible.” Then, the final step is to determine what material in the pile marked “plausible” can be moved one step further into an even smaller pile marked “probable.” Here’s a good example of how that process works, one that begins by assuming the story in question describes something that’s possible.

Is it plausible that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, shortly before Passover, as large crowds cheered his arrival with shouts of “Hosanna!”? Given what we know about how the occupying Roman forces prepared for volatile situations like the Passover, most experts view the scene as totally implausible. Yet, instead of challenging the historicity of this scenario, some scholars try to sidestep the issue by arguing that the gospel writers may have simply exaggerated what was originally a rather minor incident. In other words, they rewrite the story, removing any details that seem implausible, and then suggest that something like what they’ve described is probably what happened. The problem is compounded when we recall that the scenario described in the gospels depicts the fulfillment of prophecy, a fact that renders the gospel story less credible. I can’t prove that no such incident occurred, but neither can I claim that the story describes a plausible event. Since I can’t move this story into the pile marked “plausible,” I’m certainly not going to suggest that I’ve established the event in question as “probable.” Yet that’s what many scholars seem all too willing to do.

We should heed Dale Allison’s apt reminder: “Our desire to know something does not mean that we can know it…There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened” (Historical Christ, 55-56). In a great many cases, we must be willing to admit that we don’t know.

Tarico: Let’s come back to this idea of searching the scriptures, the idea that many of the gospel stories are actually adaptations of Old Testament verses that were perceived as prophetic. Can you give us some examples?

Chumney: Absolutely. We can start with the nativity accounts. Matthew’s star, foreigners bringing gifts of gold and frankincense, and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents are based not on memories of actual events surrounding the birth of Jesus but on scriptural traditions from the Old Testament. (The notes in any good study Bible will identify the connections.) Or consider Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. The rending of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit are signs that God is answering the ancient prayer in Isaiah 64:1. Mark’s account of Jesus healing a leper (1:40-45) is based on the account of the prophet Elisha healing a leper (2 Kings 5:1-18). Likewise, Mark’s story of Jesus multiplying loaves of bread (6:30-44) not only mirrors a scene in which Elisha does something similar (2 Kings 4:42-44) but also includes echoes of Ezekiel 34 and Exodus 16. Matthew’s catalog of Jesus’ miracles—the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised (11:4-5)—demonstrates that Jesus’ ministry marks the dawning of the messianic age foretold in Isaiah 35:5-6 and 26:19. Most numerous, of course, are the prophecies fulfilled throughout Mark’s passion narrative: the plot to put Jesus to death; the testimony of false witnesses; and Jesus’ resolute silence in response to the charges against him fulfill Old Testament prophecies. Other examples become obvious after the scene shifts to Golgotha: those who crucified Jesus divide and cast lots for his clothes; passersby mock him and shake their heads; and Jesus’ anguished cry of abandonment fulfill what is written. (Here again, the notes in any good study Bible will identify the connections.)

Tarico: Is it possible that Jesus himself was deliberately acting out these Old Testament prophecies?

Chumney: Scholars have often tried to make exactly that point. For example, E. P. Sanders discusses the possibility in relation to the triumphal entry: “It is possible to think either that the prophecy created the event or that the prophecy created the story and that the event never occurred” (Historical Figure, 254). What decisively tips the balance toward the second option is the realization that it’s highly unlikely that Jesus or his disciples could read, a prerequisite for knowing Zechariah’s obscure prophecy.

Tarico: If I could, I’d like to ask you to wade into the no man’s land between mythicists and historicists. Robert M. Price, a mythicist, has said the following: “Even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn’t one anymore.”

On the other hand, here is a comment from historicist Bart Ehrman. “These views are so extreme (that Jesus did not exist) and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land one in a bona fide department of biology.”

You are a historicist but from everything you’ve said Ehrman’s statement seems like hyperbole. Evolution is backed up by centuries of research and millions of fossils. We can watch it in action, we can replicate it in the lab. But the evidence you cite for a historical Jesus, the man behind the myth, rests literally on a handful of sentences by ancient writers who don’t claim to have met him. I’m not saying it’s insufficient to make the case “more likely than not.” But that’s a far cry from equating mythicism with young earth creationism. What’s up?

Chumney: First, let me say that I have tremendous respect for both men and have learned a great deal from each. Second, I have no qualms about challenging either man’s position when he assumes facts not in evidence or he labels as probable what is merely plausible. For example, Ehrman admits that the story known as the cleansing of the Temple is “completely implausible” given the vast dimensions of the area involved, but insists nonetheless that “Jesus may well have caused a small disturbance” (Did Jesus Exist, 326). I suspect that if he had written something like that in a graduate school term paper, his professor would probably have given him a C-. With all due respect, I hope that Ehrman realizes that his analogy is less justified than mine.

In the second edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer predicts what is almost certainly now the case: “Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus” (402). That shouldn’t be taken to suggest that Schweitzer thought Jesus never existed; instead, he meant that we can’t really show that the protagonist of the Gospels has much of a connection to the Jesus of history. If Price would concede that there probably was a historical Jesus, he would undoubtedly have the stronger case. A scholar who defended that position could get a teaching post in any public university.

Tarico: Whole books have been written—including bestsellers—that depict the life of Jesus and make claims about who he was. Reza Aslan’s Zealot comes to mind. But to quote Price again, “All attempts to recover him turn out to be just modern re-mythologizings of Jesus. Every ‘historical Jesus’ is a Christ of faith, of somebody’s faith. So, the ‘historical Jesus’ of modern scholarship is no less a fiction.” What do you have to say about this?

Chumney: We’ve got historical Jesus books by Aslan, Borg, Crossan, Dunn, Ehrman, Fredriksen, and all the way down the alphabet to Vermes. Unfortunately, we have as many versions of the historical Jesus as we have writers, and that’s a problem. Since historical research attempts to establish probabilities, experts using the same methods to analyze the same evidence ought to concur about the results. I see several reasons for the divergence of opinion. As I’ve said, scholars too often fail to limit their claims to what is probable. Also, as Helen Bond observes in an online interview, some scholars seem to be looking for “a useable Jesus,” by which she means a Jesus whose message would be more relevant to the social concerns of today’s progressive churches. However, finding a first-century peasant who can conveniently double as a spokesman for twenty-first century concerns isn’t the same thing as following the evidence wherever it leads.

This article is the third in a series examining what we think we know about Jesus as a historical figure. See also Evidence about Jesus is Weaker than You Might Thinkand “What if Jesus Never Existed? An Interview with History Writer David Fitzgerald

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

 

 

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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32 Responses to Fabricating Jesus — An Interview with Former Minister David Chumney

  1. thesseli says:

    Makes me glad I consider the so-called “God” of Abraham to be a demon or egregore instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Ruis says:

    Compare the thoughtful inquiries of real biblical scholars with the bluff and juvenile utterances of the apologists, as in The Case for Christ. Actually there is no comparison. One offers reasonable commentary, the other straws to grasp without thought.

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  3. Arkenaten says:

    Excellent, Valerie. Thank you.

    Like

  4. Sharon Ammen says:

    Thank you so much Valerie. I love your thoughtful posts–all of them. They mean a lot to me.

    Like

  5. Great interview, but Mr. Chumney was not very convincing in support of a historical Jesus. If the mythological Jesus of the New Testament is not meaningfully linked to a historical figure: then why does the historical figure matter at all? This insistence on meaningless, niggling details is what I have never understood about the devout.

    Buddhists don’t rely on historical details; the details of the life of Aristotle do not affect the Nicomachean Ethics: it is the *philosophy* that matters. And if the philosophy of the New Testament is so weak that it needs to refer to historical precedent for authority–to implied depth and style over substance–then its appeal is a tenuous thing indeed.

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    • I agree…I believe for fundamentalists and evangelicals the death and resurrection of Jesus must be a “fact” as the cornerstone of what they consider a “universal” faith. If there was no literal resurrection, then there is no literal “salvation.” If its all symbols and pictures then missionaries must admit they have wasted their lives trying to persuade heathens that it really happened. Their sense of eternity depends on it ALL being factual. This is why preaching belief, submission and obedience is so critical to many Christians.

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  6. davidchumney says:

    Edward, for more than 200 years, historians have relentlessly challenged the portraits of Jesus found in the Gospels. The results of their efforts have been devastating for the church as the foundation of its belief has been shown to be almost totally unreliable in terms of what can be determined about the actual life and teachings of its central figure.

    Even so, contrary to mythicist claims, the evidence found in early Christians sources doesn’t suggest devotion to a divine figure who gradually came to be viewed as human but devotion to a human figure who rather quickly came to be viewed as divine. As I demonstrate in my book, this mythologizing of Jesus took place as the gospel writers tried to prove that events in the life of Jesus fulfilled what was written in the Jewish Scriptures.

    My work provides a needed corrective to what I see as two misconceptions, the mythicist claim that the man behind the myth never actually existed and the historicist tendency to make various assertions about the man behind the myth that the evidence can’t really bear. So, I’m only trying to clarify the areas where I think each camp has misrepresented some of the evidence. For me, that’s a worthwhile goal.

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  7. great interview…love these various intelligent perspectives! thanks Valerie

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  8. hoju1959 says:

    Great interview. I just bought his book

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  9. cmessenger99 says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the scholar Richard Carrier, who has investigated the question of a historical Jesus in great detail. He argues that the stories of Jesus – in particular, the improbable stories in which Jesus fulfills prophesy – make much more sense with a model where Jesus, for the earliest Christians (e.g. Paul) – was not a historical person, but rather, a celestial being. This model is well supported by Paul’s own writings; Paul never references a historical Jesus (who would have lived only a few years before Paul’s conversion), despite numerous instances where such reference would be natural. Instead, Paul refers to Christ in terms of “mysteries” – in the manner of other then-popular “mystery religions”. Indeed, Paul repeatedly indicates that the only way he knows about Jesus is A) from scripture, and B) from visions. He explicitly says that he did not learn anything about Jesus from other people. Carrier goes on to argue that what was originally a mystery religion, with multiple levels of initiation (like Scientology), where Jesus was purely a celestial being, morphed after the original apostles died. Over the course of about 2 generations, the “celestial” aspect of Jesus gradually fell away, starting with Mark, and accelerating after that.

    The comment from Ehrman – about how scholars investigating the mythicist hypothesis are being blackballed (and Ehrman supports this) – is chilling.

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  10. Jim Lee says:

    Jesus as the Son of a God is a myth of giant proportion. Only the gullible can believe otherwise

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    • davidchumney says:

      Jim, I agree with what you’ve said, but I also think that there was an actual man behind that colossal myth. As the title of my book suggests, that man has been so overshadowed by the myth that we can now know almost nothing about him. The fact that there is now insufficient historical information about that man to serve as a meaningful foundation for the Christian faith can be blamed entirely on those who insisted that proclaiming the myth was more important than reporting the facts.

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      • Jim Lee says:

        A close study of the New Testament itself can reveal that the alleged Jesus is not the Son of a God. If he did exist at all then he was a mere mortal just like the rest of us. If anyone is interested I can forward one of my essays using the New Testament itself to reveal that Jesus was no Son of a God.

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  11. davidchumney says:

    cmessenger99, let me see if I can respond to the points you’ve noted. First, yes, I’ve read what Richard Carrier has written on mythicism, but his two books appeared late in the game for me. As I note in my book, I was reintroduced to mythicism by Robert Price’s essay “Jesus at the Vanishing Point.” Once I became interested, I read three of his books, two of which predated Carrier’s work. From there, I went back and read a variety of other studies—some dating to the late 19th and early 20th century (e.g., Arthur Drews, W. B. Smith, J. M. Robertson, and the added chapters in Schweitzer’s 2nd edition of Quest) and some more recent (e.g., G. A. Wells and Earl Doherty).

    Second, I’m not at all convinced that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus solely as a celestial being or that their doing so would somehow better account for the various stories that portray him fulfilling prophecy. The oft-repeated claim that Paul “never references a historical Jesus” fails to account for significant bits of evidence found in the authentic letters. Let me list a few counterexamples: Paul says that Jesus was a Jew, subject to the Law (Gal 4:4); that Jesus was a descendant of David (Rom 1:3); that Jesus had a brother named James, with whom Paul was personally acquainted (Gal 1:19); that Jesus shared a final meal with his followers (1 Cor 11:22-24); and that Jesus was crucified (1 Cor 2:3, etc.). It must be noted that legitimate doubts about the historicity of Paul’s assertions about Jesus’ Davidic descent [how could he know?] or about Jesus’ final meal with his disciples [a liturgical creation of the church?] fail to undermine the fact that Paul viewed Jesus as a recent contemporary. So, in my view, various statements Paul makes about Jesus being divine (e.g., Phil 2:5-7; 1 Cor 8:6; and 2 Cor 8:9) are better explained by the same mythologizing tendencies we see in the claims that events in Jesus’ life fulfilled prophecy.

    Third, Paul’s claim that the message he proclaims came solely from divine revelation (Gal 1:11-12) does not preclude his having learned any information from other people (e.g., 1 Cor 15:5-7, various resurrection appearances). Most arguments to the contrary rely on a literalistic reading of Galatians 1:11-12 that would rival that of the most rigid Christian fundamentalist and the claim that Paul’s subsequent discussions with Peter and James (e.g., Gal 1:18-19; 2:1-10) provided him with no additional information whatsoever.

    Fourth, I agree that there is no justification whatsoever for ignoring the arguments made by those in the mythicist camp. On the other hand, there is no justification for rejecting valid criticisms of such arguments either. In my book, I challenge historicist arguments far more often than I do those made by mythicists.

    Finally, an important study that appeared too late to be used in my own book is Daniel Kirk’s A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels (Eerdmans, 2016). Kirk has demonstrated that one can make sense of the stories that Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell about Jesus without assuming those stories depict (as John’s gospel does) a “preexistent deity walking the earth in and as the person of Jesus of Nazareth” (572). Instead, when they’re read in light of what’s found in earlier Jewish literature, it becomes evident that the Synoptic Gospels are casting Jesus in the role of an idealized human figure. Of course, it remains to be seen what impact Kirk’s study will have, but it will likely have significant implications for evaluating what the Synoptics say about Jesus.

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    • cmessenger99 says:

      @David Chumney – you write:

      “Second, I’m not at all convinced that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus solely as a celestial being or that their doing so would somehow better account for the various stories that portray him fulfilling prophecy. The oft-repeated claim that Paul “never references a historical Jesus” fails to account for significant bits of evidence found in the authentic letters. Let me list a few counterexamples: Paul says that Jesus was a Jew, subject to the Law (Gal 4:4); that Jesus was a descendant of David (Rom 1:3); that Jesus had a brother named James, with whom Paul was personally acquainted (Gal 1:19); that Jesus shared a final meal with his followers (1 Cor 11:22-24); and that Jesus was crucified (1 Cor 2:3, etc.).”

      On Carrier’s “minimal mythicist” theory, Jesus was a celestial being who fulfilled the prophesies of scripture. Paul says explicitly that scripture is one of only two ways he knows about Jesus (the other being visions). On minimal mythicism, scripture is how Paul knew that Jesus was a Jew (and celestial high priest), and was born, literally (but celestially) of the seed of David. Paul uses the term “brother” multiple times to refer to initiated members of the cult, as did other mystery religions of the time. Paul says that Jesus told him, directly (i.e. in visions) about the Last Supper. Paul makes no mention of any eyewitness to this event, or any other event, despite numerous occasions when such reference would be crucial to the arguments he is making.

      As an outside observer, Carrier makes a persuasive case, just going on Paul’s writings alone. What makes you so confident that Paul thought there was a historical Jesus? How would you quantify your confidence? As in, what percent certainty (roughly) do you have that Paul thought there was a historical Jesus?

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      • davidchumney says:

        cmessenger99, let me begin with your last question. The idea of somehow quantifying (in terms of percentages) anyone’s degree of certainty on matters such as this accomplishes little. Let me illustrate with two opposing viewpoints . In his 2012 book Did Jesus Exist? Bart Ehrman writes, “The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist” (4). I take that to mean that Ehrman is 100% certain that Jesus existed. In his 2014 book On the Historicity of Jesus, Richard Carrier writes, “There is only about a 0% to 33% chance that Jesus existed” (606). What should we do with those two competing claims? If we add up the percentages and divide by two, we could say that, taking into consideration what a prominent historicist has said and what a prominent mythicist has said, there is between a 50% chance and a 66% chance that Jesus existed.

        If you read my book, you will discover that I give mythicists credit for raising significant questions about what Paul says concerning Jesus. Nevertheless, based on my reading of Paul’s letters, I am convinced that he thought of Jesus as a recent historical figure.

        You write, “Carrier makes a persuasive case, just going on Paul’s writings alone.” There is an obvious problem with that statement. No one (whether historicist or mythicist) is making a case “on Paul’s writings alone.” Scholars interpret what they find in Paul’s letters, which means that scholars looking at exactly the same evidence quite often come to radically different conclusions. Let me note just one example, Paul’s use of the term “brothers.” All scholars agree that in some contexts, Paul uses the term “brothers” in a non-literal sense to refer to members of the church. A clear instance of this usage is found in 1 Corinthians 1:10, where Paul writes, “Now I appeal to you, brothers….” However, later in the same letter, Paul writes, “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor 9:5). In this second instance, the word “brothers” denotes a much more limited group [not church members in general], and arguably indicates the male siblings of Jesus. Both Carrier and Price have made arguments against that latter interpretation, but those arguments have not persuaded any of their peers. Indeed, Paul’s strong objection to factions in the church (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17) makes it doubtful that he would (later in the same letter) so casually refer to a special group known as “the brothers of the Lord.” Any such inconsistency disappears if this latter use of the word “brothers” is taken literally. Please note that I’m not claiming that I’m right and they’re wrong; instead, I’m suggesting that my interpretation of the texts in question is less reliant on special pleading.

        I agree that Paul never mentions eyewitnesses to events in the life of Jesus and that his not doing so is problematic.

        I also agree that Paul emphatically insists that the gospel he proclaims came through a revelation and not from human sources (Gal 1:12). Likewise, he specifically states that his understanding of the origin of the Lord’s supper came “from the Lord” (1 Cor 11:23).

        Even so, the claim that Paul learned nothing whatsoever about Jesus from other individuals (see, e.g., Gal 1:18–2:10) is extremely unlikely. For Paul to claim divine revelation as the basis for the message he proclaimed (Gal 1:12) does not preclude his having picked up additional information from his contact with other Christian leaders such as Cephas and James (Gal 1:18-24). To claim otherwise contradicts ordinary human experience.

        Instead of relying so heavily on Carrier’s arguments, you might want to spend more time with a copy of Paul’s letters and a few questions, such as, Why do mythicist interpreters so often have to supply the descriptive term “celestial” in their arguments? What does it mean to suggest (as you have) that Jesus was born “literally (but celestially) of the seed of David”? Is that really the clear sense of what Paul means in Romans 1:3 when he writes that Jesus Christ “was descended from David according to the flesh”?

        None of us has all the answers. If your understanding of the issues relies exclusively on what one person has written (whether that person is Carrier, Ehrman, or even Chumney), you ought to do more work.

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      • cmessenger99 says:

        You write: “I take that to mean that Ehrman is 100% certain that Jesus existed. In his 2014 book On the Historicity of Jesus, Richard Carrier writes, “There is only about a 0% to 33% chance that Jesus existed” (606). What should we do with those two competing claims?”
        What likelihood do you give to the idea that Paul thought there was a historical Jesus?

        “I agree that Paul never mentions eyewitnesses to events in the life of Jesus and that his not doing so is problematic.”
        If it’s problematic, then that implies that it raises some doubt in your mind. How much doubt?

        “Even so, the claim that Paul learned nothing whatsoever about Jesus from other individuals (see, e.g., Gal 1:18–2:10) is extremely unlikely.”
        It is only extremely unlikely if Jesus was a historical person. It makes perfect sense if Paul’s only knowledge of Jesus comes from scripture and revelation.

        “For Paul to claim divine revelation as the basis for the message he proclaimed (Gal 1:12) does not preclude his having picked up additional information from his contact with other Christian leaders such as Cephas and James (Gal 1:18-24). To claim otherwise contradicts ordinary human experience.”
        Paul directly tells he he didn’t learn about Jesus from other people. But you’re saying he surely must have (assuming Jesus was historical), so therefore we can assume he did. This is circular reasoning.

        “Is that really the clear sense of what Paul means in Romans 1:3 when he writes that Jesus Christ “was descended from David according to the flesh”?”

        I think one way people go wrong in trying to understand ancient writings is that they fail to take into account just how different our modern conceptions are from ancient conceptions. Everyone knows, now, that the atmosphere ends a few miles up, then there’s empty space, and some orbiting blobs of matter. But in ancient times, this was not anybody’s assumption. Paul would not be the only ancient person to have a conception that real, flesh-and-blood beings existed in the firmament – the air-filled region between the Earth and the Moon. It seems implausible to us, only because we’re so thoroughly modern.

        Paul repeatedly makes clear that he knows about Jesus from scripture. In this case, it is plausible to think that Paul knows Jesus was born from the seed of David, because it was written in scripture that he would be.

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  12. Ari Tarver says:

    As society evolves scientifically the need for a god, prayer and religious belief will cease. It’s happening rapidly. Europe and North America alone have the fastest growing atheist population. It’s a wonderful trend that atheism will (not in our lifetimes) eventually become a standardized worldwide belief system.

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  13. davidchumney says:

    cmessenger99, I stand by my original statement. The claim that Paul learned nothing whatsoever about Jesus from other individuals (see, e.g., Gal 1:18-2:10) is extremely unlikely.

    When I make that statement, I am presupposing nothing about the historicity of Jesus. Instead, I am simply claiming that Paul was likely influenced by what he heard from others, because most people are.

    Please note, the things Paul learned from other people were not necessarily true. Indeed, the things he learned from others would have been entirely untrue if Jesus never really existed. So, even if the mythicist position is correct, the claim that Paul’s ideas about Jesus could have been completely unaffected by what he heard from other people defies what is known about ordinary human experience.

    I have not engaged in circular reasoning on this point. I am, however, suggesting that you might be putting a bit too much emphasis on Paul’s claim in Galatians 1:11-12. Take a closer look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff, where he lists various resurrection appearances to people who were believers before him. He says, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures….” As Robert Miller has noted, “In expressing these beliefs Paul insisted that he was merely repeating what he had been told by those who were believers before him” (Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy, 1). Are you sure that Miller is wrong and that Paul learned nothing from conversations with Cephas and James about their visions of the resurrected Jesus?

    It is true that Paul’s understanding of reality is very different from the understanding people have today. However, the views that you seem to be attributing to Paul have more to do with mythicist attempts to argue their case than they do with a critical-historical reading of Paul’s letters. Again, I would suggest that you spend a little more time reading Paul’s letters (with the help of a couple of good critical commentaries) and not limit your reading exclusively to proponents of mythicism.

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    • cmessenger99 says:

      You write: “Please note, the things Paul learned from other people were not necessarily true. Indeed, the things he learned from others would have been entirely untrue if Jesus never really existed.”

      You’re pre-supposing that the other people Paul conversed with thought that Jesus was a historical person. If everybody thought that Jesus was a celestial being, then the evidence we have makes perfect sense. Sure, Paul would converse with other people and hear their thoughts about Jesus. But Paul’s knowledge trumps theirs, because Paul is better able to properly understand the scriptures, and also directly communicates with Jesus in visions. So Paul goes out of his way to say that he did not learn about Jesus from Cephas – the religion’s founder – or any other apostle. This is what gives Paul the authority to make major modifications to the cult’s tenets.

      “So, even if the mythicist position is correct, the claim that Paul’s ideas about Jesus could have been completely unaffected by what he heard from other people defies what is known about ordinary human experience.”

      It is historicity which has a problem with the immutability of Paul’s understanding of Jesus. On historicity, why, indeed, does Paul not defer to the knowledge of those who would have conversed with Jesus personally? Indeed, if people generally thought that Jesus really existed, why would _they_ give Paul any currency, if Paul completely rejects the understanding of the apostles who would have been Jesus’s disciples? It makes no sense.

      “As Robert Miller has noted, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures….” As Robert Miller has noted, “In expressing these beliefs Paul insisted that he was merely repeating what he had been told by those who were believers before him” (Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy, 1). Are you sure that Miller is wrong and that Paul learned nothing from conversations with Cephas and James about their visions of the resurrected Jesus?”

      Elsewhere, when Paul refers to that which he has “received”, he explicitly states that means that he received it from scripture or from Jesus in visions. This passage fits comfortably within that framework. Miller is directly contradicting what Paul says in Gal 1:12. In effect, Miller is saying that what Paul wrote in Gal 1:12 was wrong. It surely would have to be wrong if Jesus was a historical person.

      Given all of this, I can’t see how a historian can be so sure that Paul thought Jesus existed as a historical person. Surely there is room for some significant doubt?

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      • davidchumney says:

        cmessenger99, as Ronald Reagan once said, “There you go again.” In my previous post, I was not (despite your response to the contrary) presupposing that other people thought that Jesus was a historical person. Indeed, I was trying to explain my point by adopting your perspective.

        Let me restate what I am saying. When I claim that Paul was very likely influenced by what he heard from others (because most people are), I am suggesting that that is true irrespective of whether Jesus was a historical person and irrespective of what Paul or anyone else may have believed to be the case.

        Let me offer an example from 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, where Paul introduces a description of Christ’s imminent return. Paul writes, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord….” (4:15). Because there is no parallel to this teaching in any of the Gospels, most experts agree that what Paul characterizes as “the word of the Lord” is not drawn from oral tradition. Instead, as Eugene Boring has explained, “The most likely view is that Paul is citing, with minimal editorial interpretation of his own, the oracle of an early Christian prophet” (I & II Thessalonians, 164). Note that, unlike the way Paul introduces his description of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians, he does not say in the present case, “I received from the Lord” (11:23) as he does there. Hence, most commentators support Boring’s view that Paul is quoting a “word of the Lord” revealed to someone other than himself.

        So, let me explain the implications of that example. Whether or not Jesus was a historical person, Paul believed that it had been revealed to a Christian prophet that “the Lord” [i.e., Jesus Christ] was soon going to “descend from heaven” (4:16) and gather his saints. Whatever Paul or anyone else may have believed about Jesus Christ having been a historical figure, he did believe that that same figure was now in heaven but would soon make a dramatic appearance. And, at least in this case, Paul’s belief was likely based on something he learned from someone else.

        As I have previously suggested, if you want to understand Paul’s letters in their historical context, you need to look at some good critical commentaries and not rely exclusively on mythicist explications of the material.

        Here again, an example is instructive. Many historicists such as Ehrman point to 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 as evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Because that brief passage accuses “the Jews” of having “killed…the Lord Jesus,” historicists maintain that it provides clear evidence Jesus was a historical person. However, Pauline scholars have repeatedly challenged the authenticity of that passage, because it seems to allude to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (an event subsequent to Paul’s death). These scholars base their interpretation solely on the wording of the text and not on any mythicist presuppositions. So, one of the main texts used to defend the historicity of Jesus is called into question by scholars who have no dog in the mythicist/historicist fight.

        Most scholars who examine what are considered Paul’s authentic letters (and these individuals are, of course, reading them critically in terms of the letters’ first-century milieu) conclude that Paul viewed Jesus as a recent historical figure. Mythicists who dispute that conclusion rely on curious interpretations of specific texts that few have found convincing.

        Robert Price and Richard Carrier (to name two prominent proponents of mythicism) have made reasoned arguments in support of their position. Now, the fact that I do not find those arguments compelling has little significance. However, the fact that so few of their peers have found those arguments compelling ought not be ignored.

        Please note, I am not appealing to authority in the above statement or suggesting the majority is necessarily correct. What I am saying (to borrow a phrase from the subtitle of Carrier’s book) is that, with regard to the mythicist position, “we might have reason for doubt.”

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  14. Jim Lee says:

    Even a lot of New Testament writings should only be assumed as “hear say” as these scriptures cannot be supported by secular writings of the same era.

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    • davidchumney says:

      Jim, you make a good point. Stories and sayings passed down by oral tradition are indeed simply hearsay. Other stories, as I point out in my book, are imaginative fictions based on OT Scriptures (e.g., the story of the triumphal entry). Based on the evidence we have, it is unwise to claim anything about Jesus beyond the likelihood of his existence and the mode of his execution.

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  15. cmessenger99 says:

    @davidchumney You write:

    “However, the fact that so few of [Carrier & Price’s] peers have found those arguments compelling ought not be ignored.”

    Not 50 years ago, it was almost universally agreed by scholars that Moses was historical. Today, that would be a fringe position (among scholars).

    “What I am saying (to borrow a phrase from the subtitle of Carrier’s book) is that, with regard to the mythicist position, “we might have reason for doubt.””

    My question for you is: how much belief do you have in historicity? Is it 100%? Is there any room for doubt?

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    • davidchumney says:

      cmessneger99, yes, the times they are a’changing. Today, only Christian fundamentalists would maintain that the patriarchs, Moses, the exodus, and the conquest are historically credible. While the scholarly consensus concerning the historicity of those individuals and events has shifted dramatically, historians cannot simply argue, “No Abraham, no Moses, therefore no Jesus. The evidence relating to Jesus, though admittedly meager, is different in significant ways. Moreover, it is important to remember that most of the arguments put forward by today’s mythicists have been around for well over one hundred years. When I first became interested in the mythicist arguments, I not only read what Price and Carrier have said but also what their predecessors were saying in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Critics been evaluating those arguments for quite a long time, and if those arguments were more compelling, I am confident that they would find greater support.

      Here is what I have said in my book. Two independent sources (one Christian, the other non-Christian) refer to a man named James. Because both sources identify James (one implicitly, the other explicitly) as the brother of Jesus (the one called “Christ”), there is tenable evidence verifying the existence of this Jesus. So, then, is there room for doubt? Of course there is. Historians deal only in probabilities, not certainties.

      And here is what I think is probable: Jesus (called Christ by his followers) was a Jew who was crucified by Pontius Pilate (prefect of the Roman province of Judea) and about whom we can now know almost nothing else.

      If historians can establish that much (and I think they have), then we can also say this: The evidence found in early Christian sources suggests devotion to a human figure who rather quickly came to be viewed as divine not (as mythicists claim) devotion to a divine figure who gradually came to be viewed as human.

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      • cmessenger99 says:

        “Moreover, it is important to remember that most of the arguments put forward by today’s mythicists have been around for well over one hundred years.”

        This seems a dubious foundation, given that the same people who rejected mythicism a hundred years ago, also believed in a historical Moses. Each generation must think for itself.

        You write: “Here is what I have said in my book. Two independent sources (one Christian, the other non-Christian) refer to a man named James.”

        What is this other source? (I assume that one is Galatians).

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  16. Jim Lee says:

    So one really has to question Is there a God? As far as I’m concerned the very God himself is a mythological figure created by man as he attempted to explain the workings of the universe. We are aware today of many world religions, all with their alleged holy books of scripture. All claiming to have the sole truth. Imagine the peace that could be attained worldwide If we had proof that a God did not exist and religions ceased to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cmessenger99 says:

      If we use a definition of God(s) as commonly understood by religionists, then we have as much proof that such a God(s) does not exist as we have for anything. That is to say, in no domain of study has any effect been demonstrated which can be explained by God(s), which cannot be explained in a simpler way without God(s). Even on the subjective level, we can explain and even cause the “supernatural” experiences commonly associated with religion. Furthermore, as you point out, we know that superstition, the foundation of religion, is instinctual, occurring in all human cultures. The instinct for superstition can, however, be overcome with knowledge.

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  17. davidchumney says:

    cmessenger99, the people who rejected mythicist arguments a century ago did not have the last word. Much of that discussion was surveyed by Schweitzer in the 2nd edition of Quest, so others have encountered and evaluated those arguments in the intervening years. Any serious academic who thought that he or she had discovered a strong argument for rejecting the historicity of Jesus has had ample opportunity to build on that finding.

    Of course, every generation must think for itself, and each one has. Indeed, as I note in my book, Price’s essay “Jesus at the Vanishing Point” was what made me go back and review the issue. My point in bringing up the work of previous generations was not to suggest that they settled the issue, but to point out that this discussion has shadowed historical Jesus research for quite some time.

    It’s great that scholars such as Price and Carrier have introduced a new generation to the subject. However, if you start with the work of Bruno Bauer back in the mid-nineteenth century, move through the works of individuals such as A. Drews, W. B. Smith, and J. M. Robertson in the early twentieth century, and consider the work of writers in the latter half of the twentieth century such as P. Couchoud and G. A. Wells, you’ll find that some of the same arguments have been recycled and rejected many times.

    In addition to what Paul says about James in Galatians, there is what Josephus says about James in the Antiquities (20.9.1). Both Price and Carrier (like their predecessors) have devised arguments for rejecting that evidence, but in my view those arguments are not convincing.

    As I acknowledge in my book, when I was in college, I simply accepted without question what my textbooks and teachers said about the mythicist position. But, after reading Price’s essay in 2009, I decided that it was time to think for myself, and so I re-examined the evidence and the arguments. In the process of doing so, I came to two conclusions: (1) Jesus probably did exist, but (2) what historical research can confirm about that figure amounts to far less than what most scholars have been willing to admit.

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  18. Jim Lee says:

    I found all of my ideas for questioning Christianity within the biblical contradictions that exist within the Bible itself. Most of my own essays were based on the deception within biblical text. One exception, and this was after I had left Christianity for good. This was a book written by Australian Author Tony Bushby The book Title “The Bible Fraud” is a very interesting read to say the least.

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  19. davidchumney says:

    Jim, there certainly are numerous contradictions within the Bible. Despite that fact, many believers continue to rationalize those problems rather than following the course you did and leaving the faith behind. Seems to me that you’ve made the reasonable choice.

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