Background: Last year (2003) Mark McFall reviewed a book by Douglas Groothius entitled On Jesus, which among other things explores the question "Was Jesus a Philosopher?" McFall then asked me to comment on that question, drawing on my expertise in ancient history. So I obligingly wrote Some Godless Comments on McFall's Review of On Jesus, which largely answered the question in the negative, though with an important qualification. McFall then responded to my comments in A Look at Carriers Godless Comments in Review, which seems to have largely misunderstood much of what I said, and relies on several fallacies or errors of fact. The following essay responds.
Table of Contents:
On the central point, I will reiterate what I said originally: that I do believe Jesus counts as a "philosopher" in an informal sense, but not in the sense that McFall wants. McFall (following Groothius) believes Jesus is such an important philosopher that "professors in the humanities" should "rectify the omissions of Jesus in the canon of philosophers." I disagreed, and stated why. In response, McFall claims Jesus "qualifies" as a philosopher in this more formal sense even on my own criteria, which McFall claims are this: that including Jesus in the "canon" would constitute "familiarizing readers with philosophical systems and elucidating those connections with known and influential traditions." But that is not what I said: McFall has omitted the most crucial words, and thus distorted my actual criteria. This sort of "misunderstanding" seems to typify McFall's reply. Likewise, contrary to his past practice with me, McFall has dropped his gloves and is no longer even-handed in his treatment of the issue. In his reply he often disparages my competence and accuses me repeatedly of hypocrisy, so I will at times have to be quite stern in my responses, and present copious primary evidence against him.
1. What Are My Criteria?
I wrote that "reference works on philosophy are concerned with familiarizing a modern reader with the philosophical systems of systematic thinkers, and elucidating their connection with known and influential traditions in philosophy." I have put in italics what McFall strangely omitted from his bogus quotation (or paraphrase, when he first presents it, but he puts quotation marks around the exact same line in his conclusion, thus giving the impression that he is repeating my actual words). First, it should be clear that my criteria include that a candidate must be a "systematic thinker" and that his thought must relate to "philosophy," which I specifically went on to explain means in the formal sense "the study of the nature of all aspects of being through rigorous logic and the analysis of language." I will allow the non-rigorous to count, but we cannot abandon the role of explicit reasoning, logical or linguistic, and still have philosophy left over. So a system of thought that does not meet that criteria does not qualify as "philosophy" in the sense that gets attention in "reference works on philosophy," and a thinker who is not systematic does not qualify as a "philosopher" in that more formal sense either. McFall's response completely fails to address how Jesus satisfies either of these essential criteria, so he has failed to respond to what I actually said.
2. Why Buddha?
McFall says "one can detect [philosophical] influences in Jesus just as much as one can detect influences in, say, Buddha from Hindu philosophy." First, I never disagreed with this notion. In fact, I actually said "I see nothing wrong with trying to identify the method of reasoning and the underlying worldview of a thinker like the Gospel Jesus, as for any influential teacher in history." And I gave basically the same analogy McFall does, only using Reverend Moon instead of Buddha. So McFall evidently doesn't get the point. Buddhism isn't normally taught in philosophy courses either. Nor is "Hindu Philosophy," despite that being among the top five largest and most influential religious ideologies in the world today, with hundreds of millions of adherents. There is a distinct difference between religion and what we formally define as philosophy. Though they certainly draw upon and influence each other, this does not make them the same thing.
Second, though Buddha and his belief system do get mention in good philosophical reference works, this is because Buddha (unlike Jesus) was a systematic thinker and did expound detailed doctrines on "the nature of all aspects of being" through the Indian tradition of logic and analysis. Buddha expounded on epistemology and metaphysics, not just ethics, and organized a relatively complete system or "worldview" (see below). And though there remain many problems of tracing just what really originated with him, it is undeniable that he originated a fundamentally distinct and novel philosophical system, whereas Jesus did not fundamentally differ from numerous other Jewish thinkers of his day (as is more than evident from the findings at Qumran and the countless parallels between things Jesus said and things said by dozens of other rabbis in the historical record).
On the other hand, Hindu Philosophy is not associated with any thinker in philosophical reference works, for the very same reason Jesus is excluded from them: no one knows who actually came up with what in the Hindu thought system. In contrast, for example, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Augustine do get mention in good philosophical reference works. In fact, they get substantially larger sections in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy than Buddha does. So it cannot be said that Christianity is disregarded. McFall seems almost to confuse this later religious system with Jesus. Christianity is not the issue, nor is Christian theology or philosophy. The question is Jesus. We have to keep our eye on the ball here. When it comes to my formal criteria, is Jesus at all comparable to Augustine or Aquinas? Not even remotely. He doesn't even come within a micrometer of his nearest Jewish contemporary, Philo—who, incidentally, gets a mere two paragraphs in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, and I doubt Philo is ever even mentioned in standard philosophy courses.
3. Explicit Interaction?
McFall says that "the evidence is mounted against Carrier in principle" regarding my claim that "Jesus did not explicitly interact with existing philosophies." Let's look up "explicitly" in a dictionary: it is the adverbial form of the adjective explicit: 1. fully and clearly expressed or demonstrated; leaving nothing implied. Now: is the evidence "mounted" against me here? Can McFall point to a single instance where Jesus names a philosopher or philosophical school of thought? Or where he is explicit in his engagement with the formal philosophical debates raging around him? Or where he identifies a concept in the established philosophical nomenclature or ideology of his time, analyzes a defense or critique of this concept, and arrives at his own conclusion through an application of logic or linguistic analysis? I am pretty sure he can't. He certainly hasn't done so yet. McFall does not seem to understand what I mean by the difference between a mere religion or a rabbi, who certainly are influenced by philosophical ideas, and an actual philosophy or philosopher.
4. Is This a Popularity Contest?
McFall then talks about what "average folk" expect, not realizing apparently that this is irrelevant to what "professors in the humanities" do or should expect. I agree with McFall that pop culture has no interest in "articulated systematic ideas." Yet that is what philosophy is by definition. That was my entire point, apparently entirely lost on McFall.
Pop culture has little to do with the academic philosophical community. That is why I qualified my point: I began my essay by conceding that Jesus was a philosopher in the popular, "average Joe" sense, just not in the formal, academic sense. McFall completely fails to grasp this distinction when he argues that "widespread influence" and "ability to cause people to reflect" on philosophical issues should be sufficient to qualify someone "on the same level (per se) as many accepted canonical philosophers." But that is to replace formal academic philosophy with pop culture. Deepak Chopra and Mark Twain also have "widespread influence" and the "ability to cause people to reflect" on philosophical issues, but they don't make the cut either. Yet, unlike Jesus, at least they actually wrote things!
It seems that McFall wants canonical lists of major philosophers to be nothing more than a popularity contest. But his reasoning would have to admit Muhammed, Joseph Smith, Pat Robertson, and, again, Reverend Moon to the canon—they, again, unlike Jesus, actually wrote things, and things that contain far more on implicit and often explicit philosophical subjects than what Jesus ever said (even assuming we can actually figure out with any confidence what Jesus said in the first place). So, in fact, these men are eminently more qualified than Jesus. But it seems obvious they don't belong on any such list, so a fortiori neither does Jesus.
5. No Metaphysical Commitments?
McFall attempts to promote Jesus by demoting Socrates, in the process accusing me of professional incompetence, when he argues that "Carrier seems unaware of the developing philosophizing skills embedded in Platos recordings of his master." Strange. I wrote: "no expert regards the thought of Socrates as reliably known precisely because we only have it through the filter of others." Did McFall not read those words, or the sentence following that one? He attacks me for not knowing this, yet in fact I declared it explicitly! How's that for a misunderstanding? But it only gets worse.
In particular, McFall says that "in Platos earliest dialog of Socrates (Apology), the majority of scholars see a very simple philosopher who 'has no interest' in 'metaphysics, epistemology, or ontology'." Maybe McFall is being facetious, but did he ever notice that the Apology is not a work of philosophy? It is a legal speech, delivered at a trial, and is technically a monologue, not a dialogue (though there is some exchange of discussion with his accuser Meletus). In fact, this was a trial where it was in the best interests of the accused (Socrates) to downplay the very philosophical doctrines that so enraged his accusers. As one can see from reading both our sources for Socrates' defense (Plato and Xenophon), his trial strategy was to argue that he was just an average Joe teaching the same things everyone else does—conformity to popular religion. Esoteric philosophical doctrine would only have weakened that case. So it is folly to expect to find it there.
Even so, I had not claimed that Socrates did any more than "address serious ethical problems and questions in [a] methodical way." It is commonly agreed that Socrates was a kind of formal skeptic, and advanced detailed logical arguments against the possibility of establishing most forms of metaphysical knowledge. Pyrrhonism and Academicism, the two most prominent Skeptical schools in antiquity, were both direct descendants of Socratic philosophy, tracing their tradition to him through his disciples. Thus, though he had little in the way of an explicit metaphysics, he had an explicit epistemological reason for rejecting most metaphysics, placing him in the company of the modern logical positivists, who are no less philosophers despite rejecting an entire branch of philosophy—in fact, two of the major three, since the positivists also did not accept ethics as a philosophical subject either.
I think McFall, therefore, has misunderstood my point. Was I asserting that a philosopher must expound on all the branches of philosophy? No. Though a philosopher, to qualify as a philosopher, must say why he rejects any branch of philosophy, and should argue this in a systematic and logical way, that is all the treatment any branch of philosophy needs to qualify as part of a systematic philosophy. In that regard, Socrates qualifies. Jesus doesn't.
We must also be careful to get the facts straight. Though McFall is certainly correct that there is more of Plato in Plato's Socrates than Socrates himself (though the very same problem befalls the Gospels), and this may well have increased over time, McFall seems ignorant of the fact that Plato is not our only source—despite the fact that in my original essay I was very clear about this. Indeed, we have one crucial source written in the very lifetime of Socrates himself: The Clouds of Aristophanes, a play poking fun at Socrates and his philosophy. We also have excerpts from Socrates' trial defense from another author: namely, the Apology of Xenophon, who also gives us his own accounts of Socrates' philosophical discourse, and more excerpts from his defense, in the Symposium and Memorabilia (his Economics is also a Socratic dialogue, though arguably not a work of philosophy).
So what do we actually learn about Socrates' ideology from all these sources? (Which, again, I must emphasize far outstrip in scale and detail anything we have for the ideology of Jesus)
Even from Plato's Apology, which McFall seems to think devoid of substantive philosophical positions, we find Socrates declaring substantive philosophical positions:
Socrates: "Do [you think] I don't even believe that the sun or the moon are gods, as the rest of mankind do?"
Meletus: "No, by God! Look, Judges, he says that the sun is a stone and the moon earth!"
Socrates: "... [yes] the youth learn these doctrines from me, but they can buy books in the market" [that also teach them, and though I think such doctrines are ultimately absurd] "I believe in spiritual beings at any rate, according to your own statement, and you swore to that in your indictment. But if I believe in spiritual beings, it is quite inevitable that I believe also in spirits, right? ... But do we not agree that spirits are gods or children of gods?" (Plato, Apology 26d-e, 27c, cf. 35d).
Socrates: "Is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. But I do know that it is evil and disgraceful to do wrong and to disobey him who is better than I, whether he be god or man." (Plato, Apology 29b).
Socrates: "Perhaps someone might say, 'Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?' Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god [who speaks to me in my mind] and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less." (Plato, Apology 37e-38a).
But still, Socrates' trial defense was crafted to avoid and downplay his actual teachings. From The Clouds we see much poking fun at Socrates the nitpicker, but also at Socrates' interest in natural philosophy, despite his denials at trial. Here is just an excerpt:
Pupil: I'll tell you, then. But these are holy secrets. This morning Socrates asked Chaerephon how many of its own feet a flea can jump. A flea had bitten Chaerephon on the eyebrow and then jumped off and landed on Socrates' head.
Strepsiades: And how did he measure the jump?
Pupil: Most cleverly. He melted wax, then picking up the flea, he dipped both its little feet into the wax, which, when it cooled, made little Persian slippers. He took these off and was measuring the distance.
Strepsiades: Good God almighty, what subtlety of mind!
Pupil: That's nothing! Just wait till you hear another idea of Socrates'. Wanna?
Strepsiades: What? Please tell me!
Pupil: Our Chaerephon was asking his opinion on whether gnats produce their humming sound by blowing through the mouth or through the rump.
Strepsiades: So what did Socrates say about the gnat?
Pupil: He said the gnat has a very narrow gut, and, since the gut's so tiny, the air comes through quite violently on its way to the little rump; then, being an orifice attached to a narrow tube, the butthole makes a blast from the force of the air.
Strepsiades: So a gnat's butthole turns out to be a bugle! Thrice-blessed man, what enterology!
Pupil: But the other day he lost a great idea because of a lizard.
Strepsiades: Really? Please tell me how.
Pupil: He was studying the tracks of the lunar orbit and its revolutions, and as he gaped skyward, from the roof in darkness a lizard shat on him.
Strepsiades: Ha ha ha ha. A lizard taking a dump on Socrates!
All the above from lines 143-73. The text goes on, up to line 220, to describe all the things being taught and studied in Socrates' school, which included botany, astronomy, and geography. Socrates himself is shown engaging in such studies after line 220. For example, again comically exaggerated, poking fun at the obscurity and seeming silliness of Socratic teachings (including metaphysical doctrines):
Strepsiades: First tell me, pray, just what you're doing up there.
Socrates: I tread the air and contemplate the sun.
Strepsiades: You're spying on the gods from a wicker basket? Why can't you do that, if you must, down here?
Socrates: Never could I make correct celestial discoveries except by thus suspending my mind, and mixing my subtle head with the air it's kindred with. If down below I contemplate what's up, I'd never find aught; for the earth by natural force draws unto itself the quickening moisture of thought. The very same process is observable in lettuce.
The play concludes with an extended satire of the art of rhetoric, but first goes on from the above into meteorological and metaphysical discourses on clouds. That wouldn't be funny if it wasn't the sort of thing Socrates did—not, that is, to claim that clouds are the only true gods (as the play has him do), which is a parody of Socratic teachings, but to reason from empirical facts to conclusions about the nature of man and the world, which is truly Socratic. The method itself is parodied at length in this play—even the lettuce analogy above is an example of poking fun at the kind of analogies from natural science Socrates was known for deploying (and that we see from Xenophon he did deploy).
And so we get to our best source, Xenophon—best not because he is unbiased or always reliable, but because he is not biased in the way either Plato or Aristophanes were. Plato is biased by his interest in founding and leading his own school of philosophy, and thus articulating an ever-more-complete and systematized worldview, things Xenophon had no interest in. Aristophanes, of course, is biased by his very different aims as a comedian. Xenophon's only interest was in restoring Socrates' good name. (I go into the reliability of these sources in Section 8 below.)
From Xenophon it is clear that Socrates debated heavy philosophical issues ranging across all subjects with the major thinkers of his own day, not just issues of practical ethics and lifestyle, and that he engaged in dialectical reasoning and linguistic analysis to arrive at his conclusions. We can see many things that we find in the Dialogues of Plato confirmed in Xenophon. But let's see some examples of what Xenophon tells us Socrates' "metaphysical" or "theoretical" commitments were, just from the Memorabilia alone:
The problems he discussed were these: What is godly, what is ungodly; what is beautiful, what is ugly; what is just, what is unjust; what is prudence, what is madness; what is courage, what is cowardice; what is a state, what is a statesman; what is government, and what is a governor; —these and others like them, of which the knowledge made a "gentleman," in his estimation, while ignorance should involve the reproach of "slavishness." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1.16)
He believed that the gods are heedful of mankind, but ... whereas [other Athenians] do not believe in the omniscience of the gods, Socrates thought that they know all things, our words and deeds and secret purposes; that they are present everywhere, and grant signs to men of all that concerns man. (Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1.19; Socrates also advanced a detailed Argument from Design for the existence, wisdom, benevolence, and greatness of God: ibid. 1.4)
Socrates: "You think, do you, that good is one thing and beautiful another? Don't you know that all things are both beautiful and good in relation to the same things? In the first place, Virtue is not a good thing in relation to some things and a beautiful thing in relation to others. Men, again, are called 'beautiful and good' in the same respect and in relation to the same things: it is in relation to the same things that men's bodies look beautiful and good and that all other things men use are thought beautiful and good, namely, in relation to those things for which they are useful....For what is good for hunger is often bad for fever, and what is good for fever bad for hunger; what is beautiful for running is often ugly for wrestling, and what is beautiful for wrestling ugly for running. For all things are good and beautiful in relation to those purposes for which they are well adapted, bad and ugly in relation to those for which they are ill adapted " (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.8.5, 7)
When asked again whether Courage could be taught or came by nature, Socrates replied: "I think that just as one man's body is naturally stronger than another's for labour, so one man's soul is naturally braver than another's in danger. For I notice that men brought up under the same laws and customs differ widely in daring. Nevertheless, I think that every man's nature acquires more courage by learning and practice....And similarly in all other points, I find that human beings naturally differ one from another but greatly improve by application. Hence it is clear that all men, whatever their natural gifts, the talented and the dullards alike, must learn and practise what they want to excel in." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.1-3)
Between Wisdom and Prudence he drew no distinction....He said that Justice and every other form of Virtue is Wisdom....Madness, again, according to him, was the opposite of Wisdom. Nevertheless he did not identify Ignorance with Madness; but not to know yourself, and to assume and think that you know what you do not, he put next to Madness....Considering the nature of Envy, he found it to be a kind of pain....[and] "Only a fool," he said, "can think it possible to distinguish between things useful and things harmful without learning." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.4-8, 4.1.1; I am omitting Xenophon's summaries of his argument or elaboration on each position statement—but even with that, Xenophon only composed a summary of the doctrines Socrates taught and not a detailed record of all his arguments and methods)
When someone asked him what seemed to him the best pursuit for a man, he answered: "Doing well." Questioned further, whether he thought good luck a pursuit, he said: "On the contrary, I think luck and doing are opposite poles. To hit on something right by luck without search I call good luck, to do something well after study and practice I call doing well; and those who pursue this seem to me to do well." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.14)
"[I]nstead of waiting for the gods to appear to you in bodily presence, [we] are content to praise and worship them because [we] see their works. Notice that the gods themselves give the reason for doing so; for when they bestow on us their good gifts, not one of them ever appears before us gift in hand; and especially he who coordinates and holds together the universe, wherein all things are fair and good, and presents them ever unimpaired and sound and ageless for our use, and quicker than thought to serve us unerringly, is manifest in his supreme works, and yet is unseen by us in the ordering of them. Notice that even the sun, who seems to reveal himself to all, permits not man to behold him closely, but if any attempts to gaze recklessly upon him, blinds their eyes. And the gods' ministers too you will find to be invisible. That the thunderbolt is hurled from heaven, and that he overwhelms all on whom he falls, is evident, but he is seen neither coming nor striking nor going. And the winds are themselves invisible, yet their deeds are manifest to us, and we perceive their approach. Moreover, the soul of man, which more than all else that is human partakes of the divine, reigns manifestly within us, and yet is itself unseen. For these reasons it behoves us not to despise the things that are unseen, but, realising their power in their manifestations, to honour the godhead." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.3.13-14)
For another example of Socratic reasoning on metaphysical questions, compare the following quote from Socrates—the kind of thinking it represents, both its mode and its subject—with the sorts of discussions we hear from Jesus:
"For that sage, in declaring the sun to be fire, ignored the facts that men can look at fire without inconvenience, but cannot gaze steadily at the sun; that their skin is blackened by the sun's rays, but not by fire. Further, he ignored the fact that sunlight is essential to the health of all vegetation, whereas if anything is heated by fire it withers. Again, when he pronounced the sun to be a red-hot stone, he ignored the fact that a stone in fire neither glows nor can resist it long, whereas the sun shines with unequalled brilliance for ever." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.7.7)
That sure sounds like a philosopher—in exactly those respects that Jesus does not. Jesus shows no interest in these kinds of questions (what the sun is made of, etc.) or this kind of logical argument (inferring from a list of empirical facts that one object is probably not made of the same material as another). Likewise, consider the sort of epistemological humility, explicit metaphysical content, and philosophical reasoning characterized in the following passage from Plato, which is again uncommon to Jesus:
For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place. And if it is unconsciousness, like a sleep in which the sleeper does not even dream, death would be a wonderful gain. So if such is the nature of death, I count it a gain; for in that case, all time seems to be no longer than one night. But on the other hand, if death is, as it were, a change of habitation from here to some other place, and if what we are told is true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing could there be, Judges? For if a man when he reaches the other world, after leaving behind these who only claim to be judges, shall find those who really are judges ... would the change of habitation be undesirable? Or again, what would any of you give to meet with [the great men of the past]? I am willing to die many times over, if these things are true; for I personally should find the life there wonderful ... And the greatest pleasure would be to pass my time in examining and investigating the people there, as I do those here, to find out who among them is wise and who thinks he is when he is not. ... To converse and associate with them and examine them would be immeasurable happiness. At any rate, the folk there do not kill people for it; since, if what we are told is true, they are immortal for all future time, besides being happier in other respects than men are here. (Plato, Apology 40c-41b)
Does any of this sound like someone who "has no metaphysical (perhaps even theoretical) commitments" as McFall credulously claims? I think that assertion is soundly refuted by the actual evidence. Moreover, does anything above so much as resemble the sort of discourse we get from Jesus? Obviously not. They are worlds apart in content and method. And lest McFall misunderstand me again, my point is not that anyone who has "metaphysical commitments" is a philosopher—that is very definitely what I am not saying. Rather, a philosopher is someone who systematically argues for or against those commitments, through logic and analysis—the professional discourse of philosophy—and not merely through popular parables and common sense persuasion, for in the latter category fall thousands and thousands of people throughout history, famous and unknown, who only count as "philosophers" in the popular, not formal sense (again, a distinction that was the entire point of my essay).
In the end, McFall's own argument here would at best entail cutting Socrates from the list, not adding Jesus. But to get to even that farcical conclusion, McFall wants us to think that the Apology of Plato contains the extent of Socrates' system of philosophy, and everything else is just Plato making stuff up (which, if such reasoning is sound, condemns everything we know about Jesus just as surely). But the Apology is not a work of philosophy, and by nature entailed avoiding the very philosophical discussions McFall expects to find there. Yet we have so much more than that, not just from Plato, but Aristophanes and Xenophon as well, not to mention other sources (like Aristotle), exactly as I already explained in my original essay. And, unlike for Jesus, we have all that from well-known and confirmed first-hand witnesses. As I have shown, even excluding Plato altogether, it is beyond any doubt that Socrates discussed every branch of philosophy and deployed philosophical reasoning, using logic and analysis, and engaged the major philosophers of his day explicitly. All very much unlike Jesus. So there is no double standard here.
Hence my point in my original essay: while Jesus did what rabbis do, and just pronounced positions, occasionally also giving reasons, Socrates did what philosophers do and asked what the nature of things was—a question that never seems to have troubled Jesus, at least not explicitly and certainly never centrally, yet this is by definition the central concern of a real philosopher. For example, Xenophon tells us that "Socrates held that those who know what any given thing is can also expound it to others" but "those who do not know are misled themselves and mislead others" and "for this reason Socrates never gave up considering with his companions what any given thing is" (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.6.1). In fact, Socrates often discussed "names and the actions to which they are properly applied" and once asked, for example, "Can we say, my friends, what is the nature of the action for which a man is called greedy?" (ibid. 3.14.2) We definitely have a philosopher here. In contrast, Jesus rarely engaged in this kind of discussion, as far as we can tell, and he certainly never made it a central aspect of his way of seeking and teaching wisdom. He thus was not a philosopher in the formal sense, even if he was in some popular sense.
6. Buddha's Epistemology?
McFall quotes me when I say that Jesus "says very little on the subject of what knowledge is or how one discerns true knowledge from false," which is the defining feature of epistemology as a fundamental branch of philosophy, but he then declares that "Buddha is far worse off" because he "rejected any knowledge that wasnt associated with his paths of salvation." McFall doesn't seem to understand that his evidence actually works against his own point: it is precisely because Buddha had a lot to say on the nature and limits of knowledge that he gets classed with philosophers. My point was exactly that: Jesus had apparently almost nothing to say on this subject (indeed I am being generous: I am not actually aware of him saying anything on this subject, at least not explicitly, but I could perhaps have overlooked some obscure passage).
McFall is apparently confusing a genuine epistemological position that entails a variety of formal skepticism, and not having an articulated epistemology of any sort. These are very different situations—and the difference is exactly what distinguishes philosophers from other popular ideologues.
McFall is fond of quoting the brief remarks of scholars. But that won't do. As we have done already, to understand, you have to go and look at the primary sources. So I have excerpted here a long section from one of the foundational texts of Buddhism (the Potthapada Sutta). Contrast the detail with which philosophical questions are raised and discussed here, with how this sort of discussion never happens in the Gospels. We have no passage there even remotely comparable to this one. There is no Jesus comparable to this Buddha in the official record, and yet this is what real philosophy looks like:
Potthapada: "Now, lord, does perception arise first, and knowledge after; or does knowledge arise first, and perception after; or do perception and knowledge arise simultaneously?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, perception arises first, and knowledge after. And the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception. One discerns, 'It's in dependence on this that my knowledge has arisen'. Through this line of reasoning one can realize how perception arises first, and knowledge after, and how the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception."
Potthapada: "Now, lord, is perception a person's self, or is perception one thing and self another?"
Buddha: "What self do you posit, Potthapada?"
Potthapada: "I posit a gross self, possessed of form, made up of the four great existents [earth, water, fire, and wind], feeding on physical food."
Buddha: "Then, Potthapada, your self would be gross, possessed of form, made up of the four great existents, feeding on physical food. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this gross self—possessed of form, made up of the four great existents, and feeding on food—one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Then, lord, I posit a mind-made self complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties."
Buddha: "Then, Potthapada, your self would be mind-made, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this mind-made self—complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties—one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Then, lord, I posit a formless self made of perception."
Buddha: "Then, Potthapada, your self would be formless and made of perception. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this formless self made of perception, one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Is it possible for me to know, lord, whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another?"
Buddha: "Potthapada—having other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers—it's hard for you to know whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Well then, lord, if—having other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers—it's hard for me to know whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another, then is it the case that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, I haven't expounded that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."
Potthapada: "Then is it the case that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, I haven't expounded that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."
Potthapada: "Then is it the case that the cosmos is finite... [or that] the cosmos is infinite... [that] the soul and the body are the same... [or that] the soul is one thing and the body another... [that] after death a Tathagata exists... [or that] after death a Tathagata does not exist... [or that] after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist... [or that] after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, I haven't expounded that after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."
Potthapada: "But why hasn't the Blessed One expounded these things?"
Buddha: "Because they are not conducive to the goal, are not conducive to the Dhamma, are not basic to the holy life. They don't lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I haven't expounded them."
Potthapada: "And what has the Blessed One expounded?"
Buddha: "I have expounded that, 'This is stress'... 'This is the origination of stress'... 'This is the cessation of stress'... 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.'
Potthapada: "And why has the Blessed One expounded these things?"
Buddha: "Because they are conducive to the goal, conducive to the Dhamma, and basic to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I have expounded them."
Pay close attention to what is philosophical about the Buddha's discourse here: first, he declares a position on several metaphysical questions (that it is a position of radical skepticism does not change the fact, the only relevant fact here, that a position is declared, articulated, and defended); second, he expounds several points about the ethics and nature of perception, knowledge, and belief-formation, and explicitly ties his epistemological-metaphysical position (which is essentially a form of what is today called radical constructivism) to his underlying soteriology. In contrast, Jesus has nothing substantial to say about these things, nor does his discourse ever procede like this—that is, following a train of thought with an interlocutor over several steps of reasoning, involving known and heavily-debated philosophical problems of that day, to arrive at the exposition and elucidation of a philosophical concept.
7. Equivalent Consensus?
I agree with McFall's argument that for Socrates "as with Gospel-reports [of Jesus], there are scholarly consensuses regarding what is authentic, what is not, and what is debatable" in respect to the ideology they taught. I think McFall was wise to use the plural: consensuses. For there is no single consensus. However, Socratic studies is on much better footing than the study of Jesus. Though every scholar would probably disagree regarding the totality of what Socrates thought and taught, all would agree upon a certain core set of philosophical doctrines and methods. For Jesus, this is not so. Though there is perhaps agreement on a very small set of things Jesus probably said or taught, the sayings in that set are themselves very ambiguous, open to multiple (even sometimes contradictory) interpretations, and contain nothing that qualifies as "philosophy" in the formal sense, any more than the exact same kinds of things found in countless authors from Aulus Gellius to Mark Twain, none of whom make any formal list of philosophers either.
8. Are the Sources Discredited?
On McFall's tendentious attempt to dismiss the sources for Socratic thought, we have already seen from the sources themselves that he is overplaying his hand. First, no scholar that I am aware of believes that the dialogues of Plato after the Apology are devoid of genuine facts about the ideology of Socrates. McFall wants to pretend that we can discard everything Plato says. That is not so. Despite Plato's reworking, there is far more of Socrates in the Platonic corpus than of Jesus in the Gospels, certainly far more with regard to formal philosophical discourse. Any argument that discredits Plato as a source operates a fortiori against the Gospels, and thus one must concede that we still know much less about the philosophy of Jesus than about that of Socrates, for exactly the same reasons.
Second, McFall seems to miss the point of comedy: it is precisely because Aristophanes is poking fun at Socratic teachings that his work is so valuable, as well as the fact that it was written and performed in Socrates' presence and thus is far more reliable a source than anything we have for Jesus. If we had a comic satirizing Jesus in his own lifetime, we would know far more about his teachings than we do now. Sure, we must read it as tongue-in-cheek, and as comic exaggeration, and so forth, but the jokes have to be funny, and jokes are only funny when they connect with some fundamental—and peculiar—truth about their subject.
As for Aristotle, McFall says: "what I find amusing is Carriers uncritical willingness to bend in the direction of 'first-hand' information here," i.e. in my mention of Aristotle as a source, "when he so adamantly opposes the idea of similar circumstances embedded in Gospel-reports." He doesn't seem to get my point. First, what I actually wrote is (italics now added): "...(to a lesser extent) Aristotle. We know ... these men ... all knew Socrates (except Aristotle, who arrived in Athens a few years after his death, but he engaged with his disciples on a first-hand basis)." Thus, neither was my mention of Aristotle uncritical, nor do I "adamantly oppose" second-hand evidence. In fact, I explicitly accept certain kinds of the latter in the very next sentence: "We also know for a fact that several other eye-witness accounts were written (such as by Ion the Comic and Aeschines the Socratic) which were cited by later philosophers and biographers, and thus second-hand sources on Socrates are more trustworthy than any we have on Jesus."
McFall seems to think I discard all second-hand witness in history. That is never what I said or meant, and in fact, as you can see above, I explicitly denied it. If Paul, for example, had recorded any definite philosophical discourse of Jesus, I would regard that as far more reliable than most of what we find in the Gospels—all the more so if Paul told us his source of information for any given quotation, and that source was an eye-witness (like Peter). But Paul never really gives us any such data. The few examples that might be quotations are ambiguous at best, both to actual origin and source, and have no formal philosophical content anyway. Indeed, Paul has much of his knowledge of Jesus from divine revelation (as he explicitly admits at several points in 1 Corinthians, for example), which is far more dubious than anything we can claim for Aristotle's knowledge of Socrates.
Aristotle was a renowned and careful scholar, who actually originated the method of documentary history (he collected constitutions from city states all over the Greek world and published them in an anthology—now lost). We also know who he was and when and where he wrote, and we know he not only had access to the eye-witnesses but endeavored to interact with them directly. And we have no reason to believe he had any great ideological agenda to distort what Socrates said. Can any of this be said of the Gospel authors? No. Thus, a fortiori, what we have of Socrates in Aristotle is more reliable than what we have of Jesus in the Gospels. Aristotle has at least six marks in his favor as a witness, all of which are lacking (or diminished) in the case of the Gospels.
Finally, I am not sure where McFall gets the idea that Xenophon only wrote his Socratic works after his (unofficial) exile (what—was there no ink in Sparta?), or why this would discredit him as a source even if we actually knew it to be true (which we don't). As I noted above, he did not possess the ideological agenda of Plato, but a very different one: to restore the good name of a great man he personally knew. And I am not aware of any evidence that he "borrowed" from Plato in any way, as McFall alleges. Nor am I aware of any evidence that he wrote "thirty years" after the death of Socrates, or even ten years after, or even two. We don't know the precise dates of either Plato's or Xenophon's writings on Socrates. But we do know they both knew the man personally, and that they had very different agendas. Compare this with the Gospels: Do we have a Xenophon for Jesus? A man who knew him personally and composed his own record of his teachings? No. Yet for Socrates we have not one, but two such men. So McFall's attempt to pretend that Jesus and Socrates are on the same footing as far as sources go is simply absurd on its face.
9. What Eye-Witnesses?
McFall says "lets not forget" that the anonymous Gospels "contain embedded eyewitness material"—but do they? Which witnesses? Can McFall name any? Worse, can he really present any evidence that any saying of Jesus came from any particular witness, whom we know existed and whom we know the author knew and spoke with? We can answer all these questions for the sources of what Socrates said. We can answer none of them for Jesus. So who is being specious and credulous in his reasoning here?
Likewise, McFall says "still living witnesses could have declared inaccuracies publicly, but apparently did not," and he rightly points out that I endorse this reasoning. But the reasoning requires the premise to be true. Is it? Were any eye-witnesses alive when the Gospels were written? Who? Can McFall name anyone? Can he present any evidence that they were still alive then? In contrast, we can answer both for the writings on Socrates. Indeed, we can do even better: Aristophanes' comedy was performed in the very presence of Socrates himself. So no one can deny the source situation is better for Socrates.
McFall concedes that the Gospels were probably written between forty and sixty years after Jesus died. Assuming eye-witnesses were at least ten years old at his death, that means they would have to be at least 50 to 70 years old when the Gospels were written. But the average life expectancy of a ten-year-old in antiquity was 44 years. We have reason to believe that only 4% of the population at any given time was over 50 years old; over age 70, less than 2%. And that is under normal circumstances. But the Gospels were written after two very devastating abnormal events: the Jewish War and the Neronian Persecution, both of which would have, combined, greatly reduced the life expectancy of exactly those people who were eye-witnesses to the teachings of Jesus. And it just so happens that these sorts of people are curiously missing from the historical record precisely when the Gospels began to be circulated: not a single eye-witness is on record endorsing any of the Gospels, or correcting any of the evident contradictions between them (such as when Jesus was born or whether angels struck down guards at the tomb or whether Jesus was killed on Passover or the day before, and so on). The latter is especially a problem for McFall: if it were true that falsehoods would be denounced by witnesses in the extant record, since there are many apparent falsehoods in the Gospels, discrepancies that cannot be easily reconciled, we should expect eye-witness testimony in the record either correcting or reconciling these discrepancies. But there is none. Why? Most probably because there were no witnesses still living.
How, then, can McFall claim Jesus and Socrates stand on the same footing as far as sources go? Such a claim is utterly unsustainable.
10. What about the Oxyrhynchus Historian?
McFall then raises the issue of the famous "Oxyrhynchus Historian" (OH). Several wild claims of his need serious correction. First, there is an enormous and fundamentally important distinction between a text written by someone who consciously refused to state their name or name their sources, and a fragment that is anonymous only because the section with the author's name has been torn away. McFall seems oblivious to this distinction or its significance to the present issue. I have never even claimed that, in McFall's words, "just because the Gospel-reports themselves are anonymous" (italics mine) "they should be viewed with contempt." Deliberate anonymity is a strike against them, yes, but only one among many, and it is the fact that there are many that is the problem. In contrast, deliberate anonymity is not a strike against OH, since his anonymity is not deliberate, and he has many points in his favor that do not hold true for the Gospels (see below).
Second, the claim that the Oxyrhynchus Historian is held by scholars to be "far superior to Xenophons research on the same historical events in the Greek world (from 411 to 362 BC)" is a misleading exaggeration. For one thing, the two surviving fragments of OH each discuss only one single year: (397/396 and 407/406 B.C.). Secondly, Xenophon and OH actually confirm each other on general points more often than not. Thirdly, the major difference is simply that the OH is much more detailed than Xenophon, and not so much that it proves Xenophon "wrong" (which it rarely does, as we shall see). Fourthly, the actual discrepancies that do exist are mostly either those which cannot be resolved (we do not know which author is correct) or for which we already had evidence challenging Xenophon (for example, major sections of the OH's work had already long been known, from having been used as a source by Diodorus), or in which the conclusion has been the reverse (i.e. Xenophon's account is sometimes preferred to that of OH).
Finally, there is a big difference between an author doing "superior...research" and reliably reporting what one knows—a difference that destroys McFall's conclusion, which is that Xenophon is so full of "inaccuracies" and "fictions" that he must be regarded as unreliable, a claim that is in fact not supported by OH, nor indeed any actual evidence. There are inaccuracies and fictions in all ancient histories, and Xenophon is not substantially worse on that score than, say, Herodotus, Josephus or Tacitus (or OH for that matter). Even the most ardent critic (G. L. Cawkwell) admits that the OH was writing history, but Xenophon was writing a memoir, and thus the two works differ fundamentally in genre and method; and that, as a result, the most appreciable difference between them in merit as historical sources is simply that OH gives far more detail, not that Xenophon gets everything wrong (or is full of "inaccuracies" or "fictions"), since the evidence does not sustain the latter conclusion.
Thus, it is not the case that historians simply regard an "unknown" author to be inherently superior to a known one, yet that is what McFall is trying to argue. Instead, the very reasons that historians trust OH over Xenophon, when they do (and it is true they often do, and rightly so), are reasons not applicable to the Gospel reports of the sayings of Jesus. So not only has McFall committed a fallacy of hyperbole, but of false analogy as well. This latter point is particularly important here: the OH is preferred to Xenophon only for reasons that do not hold for the Gospels, and therefore no analogy whatsoever can be drawn between the reception of OH and reception of the Gospels as historical sources. Those reasons are: (1) extraordinary detail regarding names and dates and places and exactly who was where and when; (2) very reliable and precise knowledge of the relevant geography; and (3) tells stories in such detail that the events involved make a great deal of sense (i.e. we understand clearly the motives and reasons for the actors involved, showing a great concern for identifying the causes of historical events, both on the surface and in the background, and in regard to both the immediate and the long-term). In contrast, the Gospels are notorious for being relatively vague and ambiguous—even Luke, the only author to really include what we mean by historical details.
Xenophon's Hellenica falls inbetween the Gospels and the OH on these three criteria: his account is brief and generalized, as are many of his geographical and chronological references (though he only rarely makes an explicit mistake), and he leaves enough details out of his account that we often don't completely understand why certain events happened. However, this is readily explained: Xenophon wrote a short book (thus we should not expect anywhere near the detail included in the monumental multi-volume tome we know the OH to have written) and only wrote what he knew or could find out from eye-witnesses (and therefore most of the details he omits are omitted simply because he didn't know them). To this we must add that Xenophon was obviously partial to making the Spartans, and his good friend king Agesilaus in particular, look good (this we have always known about Xenophon), and some of his informants had similar biases (for example, his Persian information often comes from Persian officials who made sure their accounts made their own actions and those of their family members look good—again, something we have always known). It is agreed that OH has such biases as well (for example, OH's accounts are notoriously biased toward the wealthy, and toward recording—perhaps even to the point of inventing—clever stratagems). But again, this is a fact even more true of the Gospels. After all, Xenophon was not using his speeches of Agesilaus (much less Socrates) to support a later-evolved religious dogma against several other sects who claimed he supported different views, or attempting to preach salvation, or encourage martyrdom, or distance him from his own countrymen, and so on. And unlike OH's account of Greek history, Xenophon's record of Socratic teachings is taken first-hand.
I suspect McFall is getting his disdain of Xenophon either directly or indirectly from G. L. Cawkwell's bitter introduction to Rex Warner's translation of the Hellenica (A History of My Times, 1966). At any rate, Cawkwell's Introduction is available online. But consider the sorts of things Cawkwell unreasonably regards as "destroying" the reliability of Xenophon. What Cawkwell calls the "major" proof is the simple fact that Xenophon doesn't record a particular battle—one that embarassed his friend Agesilaus. But exactly that sort of friendly omission can probably be found in every historical text of antiquity. Thus, by Cawkwell's reasoning, all ancient histories are as unreliable as Xenophon's, which must necessarily include the Gospels—whose mutual omissions of vital episodes and sayings is legendary, and far more troublesome than Xenophon's. I would not be surprised if Xenophon "omitted" embarrassing details about Socrates, too—and probably improved the picture as well (as historians have long known he did for Agesilaus). But that has no bearing on the fundamental point that, despite all this (which I acknowledged even from the start), we still know much more, and that more securely, about the thought of Socrates than we do of Jesus.
Indeed, the main and pervasive gripe Cawkwell has against Xenophon was his reliance on his own eye-witness recollections and personal contacts with eye-witnesses, rather than written sources. Strangely, McFall would have to take exactly the opposite position to Cawkwell's, since McFall believes solely eye-witness reports are inherently superior to those which rely on other writings, whereas Cawkwell believes very strongly in the reverse. Since Cawkwell's belief that Xenophon is unreliable is based on a fact that Mcfall regards as improving the reliability of a source, it is very strange that McFall would discredit Xenophon for doing the very thing he praises the Gospels for!
But Cawkwell also believes that the last part of the Hellenica was probably not an eye-witness recollection but "experienced by hearsay," for example Xenophon's "intimacy with Agesilaus enabled him to meet Agesilaus' friends" (p. 24) and thus use them as sources. Okay. Relying on the eye-witness and personal first-hand reports of a king of the very nation Xenophon is writing about, and his ranking friends (who included major generals and ministers). That sounds like a pretty reliable source pool, don't you think? Yes, there will be propaganda and other distortions, but this is so for all histories of the time (including the Gospels). So Cawkwell goes beyond reason when he concludes that Xenophon is a lousy historian because he trusted eye-witnesses clearly in positions to know, over written records by other historians. Now, Cawkwell's polemic is excessive and not very credible, but even if he is correct in his reasoning, that very same reasoning destroys the Gospels a fortiori. So either McFall must concede that his own attack on Xenophon is excessive and largely groundless, or that the very same attack is equally fatal to the testimony he most wants to defend: that of the Gospels. He can't have his cake and eat it, too.
The same goes for Cawkwell's third objection to Xenophon: the belief that some of what Xenophon didn't see himself he took from popular rumor and conversation. First, this objection can carry no weight regarding Xenophon's testimony to the teachings of Socrates, which is primarily based on his eye-witness, and not hearsay. Second, this objection is no less damning to the Gospels than to Xenophon, since Cawkwell merely conjectures that hearsay is Xenophon's source because he names no other (though in actual fact he does imply in Hellenica 7.2.1 that he read other written histories—and thus what Cawkwell takes as sloppy reliance on hearsay could just as easily be sloppy reliance on the very written records Cawkwell holds in such esteem, which are almost all completely lost). But the exact same reasoning would also lead just as securely (or unsecurely) to the conclusion that the Gospels, by naming no source, also rely on hearsay, and thus are as bad and unreliable as Cawkwell's Xenophon. Again, by maintaining his destruction of Xenophon as a source, McFall burns the Gospels along with it. That does not help his case one bit.
Ultimately, I never claimed that Xenophon (or anyone) was some sort of flawless source, only that he has been and still is "notably reliable" (i.e. relative to his ancient peers). McFall, like apparently many believers, seems uncomfortable with ambiguity. Everything must be absolutely black and white for him. Either we toss everything out, or trust everything. Though he makes many explicit qualifications that apparently deny such an approach, in actual practice many of his arguments assume it. For example, he claims that we can only trust the Apology of Plato because everything else is (supposedly) hopelessly tainted. There is no grey area in his reasoning here. Why? And why does this radical skepticism suddenly disappear when he approaches the Gospels? Why are they any different?
Likewise, McFall's black-and-white mind leads him to the equally absurd conclusions that Xenophon is to be tossed out as an unreliable liar and mere "story teller" simply because he gets some facts wrong (as every historian of antiquity did, including OH), while the Gospels "embed" eyewitness testimony and despite all their discrepancies, deliberate anonymity, bias, rhetorical and dogmatic agendas, lack of critical procedure, and silence as to actual sources or date or place of composition, are to be trusted in essentials. Thus he turns one source (the Gospels) that is obviously worse than another (Xenophon's Hellenica) into a better one, by playing a double standard: everything bad about a bad history is good for the Gospels but not for Xenophon, and everything that is typical for all historical texts is bad for Xenophon, but not the Gospels. Up is down, and sideways is straight ahead.
Never mind that this has nothing to do with the issue: the Hellenica does not mention the teachings of Socrates. Thus, even if it were something we should toss out, that has absolutely no bearing on whether Xenophon's proven eye-witness testimony to the teachings of Socrates is to be disgarded. The fact remains: Xenophon is a much more secure source for Socrates, than the Gospels are for Jesus.
11. What Does "Privy" Mean?
I pointed out, as only one among many problems with the Gospels as a historical source, that they "mention events no one could ever have been privy to." I merely gave as one example that "the end of Matthew in particular relates secret meetings no Christian sympathizer would have been present to hear." McFall seems to think I was objecting to hearsay or second-hand witness (as evidently he wrongly thought above, too). That wasn't my point at all, though I see now the example I gave was misleading. There is nothing fatally wrong with reporting second-hand testimony—its reliability is diminished in relation to first-hand testimony, but not destroyed. My point was not that the Christians had some stories several sources removed, but that they record details they could not possibly know about at all (or at least, such knowledge is extraordinarily improbable).
Even so, that alone would not be fatal (except to those stories), if we had several positive characteristics that offset the effect of the negative. But the Gospels have few if any of the positive characteristics of a source like Xenophon. This was, after all, the original point of my comparison: however much you might quibble over details or degrees, it remains incontrovertible that Xenophon comes off, in relative terms, much more trustworthy than the Gospels. That point remains unchallenged by any evidence McFall presents.
For example, McFall reports that Xenophon also reported events he wasn't present at. I can't believe McFall ever thought I was claiming otherwise. Rather, Xenophon was still privy to those events through witnesses who were there—witnesses whose names we know, because Xenophon names them (unlike the case in the Gospels, where we do not know the names of any witnesses used for any particular thing Jesus is claimed to have said or taught). And Xenophon could further verify these things from his own eye-witness experience of Socrates and what he taught and how he taught, and what sorts of things he taught (whereas none of the Gospels were written by any confirmed witness with comparable inside knowledge).
So when McFall claims that "scholars don't judge a work's overall reliability based on deficiencies of this particular nature" he is committing a double mistake. First, I never "judged" any work's "overall reliability" on any one criterion—to the contrary, my conclusion comes only after a cumulative assessment of all relevant predictors of reliability. Rarely can any single criterion damn a source. But several together can. And even then the damnation is only by relative degree, not an absolute: hence Xenophon is better, not perfect; and the Gospels are worse, not useless.
Second, scholars do judge "a work's overall reliability" on the very same criteria I do, including the criterion of reporting things an author could not have known, which is certainly a predictor of unreliability, since this proves the author willing to invent facts and pass them off as history. An unreliable author is more likely to do this (and the more unreliable, the more likely), whereas a reliable author is not likely to do this (and the more reliable, the less likely). Obviously, this rarely means one can rule up or down on this one criterion (there's McFall thinking in black-and-white again), since it is merely an indicator, not a guarantee—it reflects a tendency. So it is only when severel indicators converge for the same work that the scale starts to fall enough to really worry. And as far as the Gospels go, we should really worry. In contrast, though the scale drops for Xenophon, too, it does not drop nearly as far—certainly not for his record of Socrates. Consequently, with him our worry is not as great.
12. What Does "Uncritically" Mean?
McFall says "Carrier is wrong when he asserts Matthew and Luke 'uncritically' copied from Mark and Q" because "Scholars clearly see" that they "used critical thinking in formulating their work." I do wonder which scholars McFall has in mind. He doesn't cite anyone or give any examples of just what they argue. But since even I would agree that Matthew and Luke used some amount of "critical thinking" in deciding what to copy and how to change it (they weren't robots), I won't object to claiming others say the same. But is this what I meant? That Matthew and Luke just copied stuff like dolts without any thought or plan? Certainly not.
When historians distinguish "critical" and "uncritical" writers, we mean writers who use an objective and transparent methodology, vs. those who don't. For example, when Suetonius critically examines the evidence for and against two conflicting claims regarding the birth and childhood of Caligula (Caligula 8), he reveals to us his evidence and reasoning—the question is made transparent, and the means of its solution is made transparent. Even if Suetonius still comes to the wrong conclusion, we still know he arrived at his conclusion critically. In contrast, Matthew and Luke not only seem oblivious to their contradictory accounts of the birth and childhood of Jesus, but they do not engage in any critical analysis of the conflicting claims. Unlike Suetonius, they do not arrive at a conclusion based on a transparent analysis and inference from the evidence they had at hand, and they certainly never present to the reader any conflicts or original data or the reasoning by which they chose or changed things. In no case ever do the Gospels do such a thing, least of all when it came to deciding what Jesus actually taught. Yet Suetonius was a notorious gossip, and already not high on any list of reliable historians in antiquity (though, I would say, still on the list). The Gospels, being so much less critical than Suetonius are thus a fortiori much less reliable.
Now, I will certainly concede that Xenophon is no hot ticket when it comes to critical analysis either—no better than Suetonius at least—but: (a) a total assessment of all indicators still favors Xenophon well over the Gospels, even if they both share marks against them (hence my judgment was based on a total assessment and not any one criterion); and (b) though Xenophon may not be the most critical of historians, he instead relied heavily on his own eye-witness and various eye-witnesses whom he knew personally and names—both in his accounts of Socrates and in the Hellenica (and, I should add, the Anabasis and Agesilaus, two other historical works he is renowned for, the former trusted more than the latter)—a mark in his favor the Gospels cannot claim, making their lack of critical historical writing all the more serious, for that is all they have left. Unlike Xenophon, "I saw it" or "Agesilaus told me" is not something they can fall back on.
13. Have You Heard of Propaganda?
McFall bizarrely claims that it "shouldnt count as a negative" that the Gospels were manifestly used to promote one sect's dogma against another's. I can't believe he really endorses such a view. It is obvious to any reasonable observer that if you have two texts, one written with the deliberate purpose in mind of depicting a revered leader promoting a particular doctrine, and another without such a motive, that the latter text is inherently more trustworthy than the former. Thus, this feature of a text obviously counts as a negative. And we have copious evidence that doctoring of the Gospels for ideological ends was rampant, whereas we have no such evidence for Xenophon's account of Socrates. In contrast, even McFall concedes that we have such evidence for Plato's account—yet he rejects Plato's Socrates and accepts the Gospels' Jesus. And he accuses me of applying a double standard? My original remarks on this issue stand.
14. What Does "Match" Mean?
I wrote that the Egerton Gospel "does not match any extant Gospel" and McFall "find[s] it odd" that I "would make an error-ridden assertion of this magnitude." Rather, I find it odd that McFall would make an error of this magnitude in reading English. What I meant was that it is a Gospel different from any extant Gospel. Nothing more. McFall seems to have inexplicably taken the words "not match" as if they meant totally unlike. That seems a rather strange gaffe for a native speaker of English. But I'll shrug this marvel off and concede that I could have made my meaning clearer. At the very website McFall cites Wieland Willker says Egerton "seems to be almost independent of the synoptics and it represents a johannine tradition independent of the canonical John." That's just what I meant when I said it didn't match the extant Gospels, and I would be happy to replace my words with his.
However, I did assume Egerton was suppressed because it was ideologically unfavored. I made this assumption on its high prior probability: since this was the case for every other noncanonical Gospel we know, and any Gospel in wide enough circulation to actually still have a papyrus fragment surviving could not have disappeared by "accident." Rather, Christian scribes must have made a conscious choice not to continue copying it after the 2nd century. But many other examples could be adduced besides Egerton, so McFall is engaging in some fancy handwaving by nitpicking on this one—for example, my point is just as well confirmed by the Gospel of Peter, which was specifically declared heretical and we have it on record that it was actively suppressed by Serapion.
Now, McFall asserts that the fragment "lacks doctrinal tones" but then goes on to list at least two doctrinal elements in it (credentials and questioners). However, I think he meant that it lacked "heretical" doctrinal elements. But I did not presume that the surviving fragment contained the doctrinal elements that led to the Gospel's suppression, so any focus on the fragment's content is rather besides the point. I merely chose it because it is an otherwise totally unknown Gospel and could well be the oldest attested papyrus of any Gospel whatever, canonical or otherwise. That is certainly significant—since it removes the commonplace objection that all the rejected Gospels came much later than the canonical ones. Hence the reason I chose Egerton as my example. I could have chosen any of several dozen others.
15. Entirely Inaccurate?
Continuing his black-and-white mindset, McFall claims that my belief regarding the nature of Mark's composition as a symbolic epic "render[s] the Gospel of Mark entirely inaccurate as a historical record." I never said that, nor did I believe it at the time (though more recently now I am starting to suspect it). I certainly do believe it is very unreliable as a historical source. But as to what actual history can be recovered from it, I do not make any definite assertions, except that there is nothing easy or uncontentious about any attempt to extract history from Mark. It is that difficulty that is the problem, more than any actual absence of history in Mark.
But I completely reject McFall's claim that "it's obvious those who recorded Jesus were uneducated." First, that is entirely impossible. To write smoothe, coherent Greek, even in the colloquial idiom used by Mark, required a very rare elite education. Second, Mark's composition is a tremendously awesome work of literary genius. Its structure and symbolism is fascinatingly complex, and it is all the more impressive that so brilliant and educated an author could carry off his task writing in the idiom of the average Joe of his day, much like Mark Twain did.
McFall seems to miss the point, then, when he claims that the "literary artistic creativity inherent in the recorders of Socrates" would have distorted that record more than Mark would for Jesus. That claim is indefensible. For on the one hand, the writers on Socrates came from a tradition in which plain talk and straightforward history was expected, and rewarded—where the distinction between hard truth and symbolic meaning was carefully drawn and scrutinized. In contrast, Mark, for example, is writing in exactly the opposite tradition, in which deep spiritual meaning hidden in symbols and narrative devices was expected, and rewarded. For Xenophon, specific historical facts are what concern him and his readership, and are the very purpose of his writing. For Mark, universal truths concerning the Good News revealed to mankind are what concern him and his readership, and are the very purpose of his writing. So there is no reason to believe that Xenophon put entire doctrines and sayings in the mouth of Socrates in order to symbolically illuminate some divine doctrine received by revelation, or to suit the structure and aims of a heavily allegorical spiritual narrative. But there is ample reason to believe that Mark did so.
That doesn't mean all history has been erased in the Gospels, but what we have here is definitely a problem faced by the entire record of Jesus, which is not faced by the record of Socrates. And this is precisely because that record comes from several different authors with completely different agendas—thus allowing distortions resembling the Markan variety (which certainly appear in Plato, for example) to be more easily weeded out or bracketed, whereas we have absolutely no such checks in the case of Jesus. For him, all we have are the symbolic religious narratives, serving a deliberate dogmatic agenda. And, by the biased selection of the later Christian scribes who chose the canon, the canonical Gospels serve in many ways the same agenda—which may or may not have been the agenda of the original Jesus. This would be comparable, for example, to preserving only Platonic accounts of Socrates—which McFall would surely cite as reason to reject that record. Therefore, to be consistent, McFall must reject the record for Jesus. Or else change his position regarding the reliability of Plato on Socrates.
16. Was Jesus Just Some Stupid Hick?
McFall engages in some anti-elitist sniping when he accuses me of basically being a snob about Jesus. For example, McFall says:
For Carrier, who has been academically trained, Jesus' sayings appear "obscure and simplified" because they lack the scholastic jargon and detailed constructs he's accustom[ed] to.
Translation: "Richard Carrier is a snob because he expects philosophers to discuss methods of inquiry and the nature of things, to carefully define their concepts, and to reason their way to conclusions through a transparent and critical analysis of those concepts and the empirical evidence. What a jerk!"
That Jesus used picturesque speech, puns, proverbs, poetry, and parables, (all of which the common populace could understand and perhaps even identify with), just doesnt cut it in Carriers eyes, as he believes a real philosopher has skills technically superior to Jesus and is often associated with ancient esteemed academies and is well-respected by colleagues.
Translation: "Richard Carrier is a snob because he thinks Jesus was just an unskilled hick, and Carrier and his ivory tower cronies just laugh the night away at this 1st century Deepak Chopra, looking down their over-educated noses at what they cannot grasp, the true wisdom found only among the people, who are too simple and pure to understand any reasoned methodology, logical-empirical argument, or systematic exposition of ideas. Why, those things are just props for elitist suckers! Puns, proverbs, poetry, and parables are where it's really at. That's the real philosophy, Baby!"
The reality is that these philosophers are of little influence on the masses because they dont know how to relate to common folk.
Translation: "Real philosophers are stuffy highbrow snobs who can't be comprehended, so they should all be cut from the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy as the unintelligible elitist blowhards that they are, and Jesus, Pat Robertson, Reverend Moon, Mark Twain, and George Carlin should go there in their place, as the true wise men, speakers to the people."
Jesus often delighted in using sharp contrasts and extreme statements to make points; points of which Carrier is likely to find too difficult to pin down and understand as his academic pursuits have conditioned him to overlook many of Jesus techniques as passé.
Translation: "Richard Carrier is so over-educated he is incapable of grasping the vast and profound wisdom that Jesus conveys in such a brilliantly simple way. What a dork!"
All that's at least what seems to be the subtext of McFall's line of reasoning here. But let's look at the truth instead of the innuendo:
First, most of Jesus' sayings are "obscure and simplified." They don't just appear that way. I explain in detail in my original essay, detail which McFall completely ignores. But the point is obvious to any objective reader and hardly need be defended. Just compare what Jesus said with what Musonius Rufus said and it is quite evident what the difference is between "obscure and simplified" and "clear and articulated."
Second, it is not the "lack [of] scholastic jargon and detailed constructs" that is the main issue here, but the lack of any interaction at all with the serious philosophy of the day, and the lack of any explicit system or methodology at all. It is simply a fact that a philosopher literally is someone who constructs systematic arguments through explicit reasoning and analysis. To not do so does not make you a stupid hick (Robert Ingersoll and George Carlin are not stupid hicks), but it does not make you a philosopher either, in any more than a merely popular sense.
And third, I do not know whether Jesus lacked the skills of educated philosophers, only that he didn't use them. We know too little about Jesus to know anything of his actual education, if any. However, he was most likely educated as a rabbi, not a philosopher. For his discourse looks exactly like that of the rabbis of his day, as found, for example, in the Talmud. None of those rabbis get in any reference works on philosophy, either—despite often engaging in argument closer to real philosophy than anything extant from Jesus. So, one should ask, why should Jesus get in, but not Rabbi Eliezer or Rabbi Ammi? Or any of dozens of other rabbis whose teachings are extensively on record? Again, does McFall think this is just a popularity contest?
17. Does McFall Think This is Just a Popularity Contest?
I am not sure how McFall can know that philosophers like Rufus or Seneca or Diogenes had "little influence on the masses" and didnt "know how to relate to common folk." I see nothing in their teachings, or the evidence for or against their popularity in antiquity, that suggests this. They spoke in straightforward, popular idioms that any half-intelligent person of the time would understand (unless McFall wants us to think "the masses" were a bunch of labotamized slugs).
Likewise, it was considered a requirement of any true philosopher to preach his philosophy in public, and every major city had lecture halls and stoa set aside for precisely that, and one could attend lectures and debates for free nearly every day. In fact, entire philosophies would be inscribed on public buildings, as for example the Epicurean Stoa of Diogenes of Oenoanda (why didn't Jesus think of that?). All evidence indicates that public speeches and debates by philosophers were wildly popular and well-attended. And what evidence we do have from "the masses" (which admittedly isn't much) indicates that the major philosophical systems did filter down and influence them to some extent—whether to inspire them to develop similar belief systems (the sublunar-celestial cosmological distinction, for example, or the Platonic-Orphic metaphysics of the soul), or to react against what they didn't like (for example, popular opposition to sophisticated theology is much in evidence).
However, it is true that, lacking an education in science, reasoning, and reading, the public did not get the kind of access to serious philosophy as anyone would want—especially the rural masses. Scientific facts, for example (like the actual causes of eclipses) hardly penetrated popular understanding. But the solution was not to patronize them with half-boiled quasi-philosophical quips, ignoring everything important (like the fact that demons and sin are not the causes of disease or insanity, or that hygiene is essential to physical health, or that lunar eclipses are natural events and not the evil product of sorcery) on the assumption that such stuff was too complicated for their tiny little brains. No. The solution was to teach them science, reasoning, and reading. But Jesus never did or advocated any such thing. Nor did his followers.
In actual fact, the influence of Jesus in his own lifetime was extremely slight—much less than, for example, the influence of Diogenes the Cynic or Plato—until a church developed long after his death that bankrolled a gigantic propaganda mill. By then, of course, various churches claimed that Jesus taught different things, and defense of the going dogma came to matter more than the truth. Just compare the "Jesuses" of Montanus, Basilides, Valentinus, or Marcion, with those of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Tatian, or Origen. No single one of any of these men taught the same Jesus or the same "philosophy" of Jesus.
Perhaps Jesus wanted to popularize serious philosophy to the masses. But there is no evidence that he had any such desire, nor was there ever any such effect. Instead, the superior "influence" of Jesus came solely through enormous elite machinery: a well-funded system of churches controlled by the very highbrow intellectuals Jesus supposedly wanted to supercede. And yet, once the money and will was in place for widespread education of the public, were they taught science, reason, and reading? No. They were taught the going dogma, and shunned or abused if they didn't agree. So McFall's praise of Jesus' "influence" is misplaced. His own influence was no greater than Rabbis Eliezer and Ammi, or Plato or Diogenes. Rather, it was numerous Church Ideologies that became tremendously influential, especially among the masses, long after the death of Jesus. True, they eclipsed the popular influence of serious philosophy—but to bury philosophy by spreading religion is still not "doing philosophy."
And this is the principle point. Remember to keep your eye on the ball. What the hell is McFall doing talking about how real philosophers had "little influence on the masses" and didnt "know how to relate to common folk"? Even if true, so what? What has that got to do with the price of tea in China? The question is whether Jesus was a philosopher like Rufus and Seneca and Aristotle and Plato. Even if Rufus and Seneca and Aristotle and Plato (and all others in the "canon") were not influential and didn't speak in an intelligible idiom, they are obviously still philosophers—in fact, they represent the very paradigm of what McFall wants us to credit to Jesus. So why is he going on about how Jesus was fundamentally different from them? How does that help his case?
McFall seems to want to say that Jesus was "just like them" except that he spoke in a "popular idiom." But Seneca and Rufus spoke in a popular idiom, and Jesus is still not at all like them. For all the reasons I explained in my original essay, and again here, above and below, Jesus did not speak, act, or think like a philosopher in the formal sense—that is, the sense of the term "philosopher" in which Rufus and Seneca and Aristotle and Plato can be called one. So Jesus doesn't belong among them. He belongs to an entirely differenty category of teachers of wisdom, in company with Reverend Moon, Pat Robertson, George Carlin, Mark Twain, and Robert Ingersoll. These guys do not make the cut for any canon of philosophers today. And neither does Jesus.
18. Is Biblical Exegesis the Same Thing as Philosophy?
McFall then tries to pretend that biblical exegesis counts as philosophy. But it very definitely does not. They are not the same activity, neither in aim nor in method. Biblical exegesis seeks to establish or at least discuss the meaning and, often, doctrinal importance of a passage or set of passages in a religious holy text. Its aim is to discover what a text means, and its methods involve, for example, literary analysis, paleography, textual criticism, theological heuristics, and a study of the relevant ancient historical and linguistic context. Philosophy is an entirely different animal. Philosophy by definition is not beholden to any text, but to the inherent logic, evidential basis, and systematic coherence of a conceptual system. Its aim is to discover how we know anything, what at all exists, why it exists, and what is right and wrong (or whether anything is) and above all why, all through a logical or linguistic analysis of what the nature of things is. In short, philosophers look to the world and try to explain the nature of that world; exegetes look to a book and try to explain what that book says. Not the same task.
So when McFall tries to paint Jesus as a philosopher by doing some biblical exegesis, he only proves my point that Jesus was not a philosopher. McFall writes:
For instance, Jesus is recorded as saying: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:26). Must be set against what Jesus is known to have said and upheld: "Honor your father and your mother" (Mt. 15:4). In light of these two contrasting pronouncements we can rightly interpret that Jesus means that if one is to follow Him he must be prepared to choose between natural affection and loyalty to his Master. Unfortunately, many skeptics incorrectly interpret the former statement to mean Jesus wants to increase the sum total of hatred in the world.
I disagree with McFall on this bit of exegesis (since he incorrectly assumes the one conclusion does not actually and effectively entail the other), but that is beside the point. The fact is that a philosopher would already have said this. What McFall is trying to do (rescue an obscurity in the teachings of Jesus from the charge of being faulty) is exactly what he should not have to do: if Jesus had been a philosopher, he would already have identified this problem (or at least some problems like it) and already have systematically resolved it (or them), explicitly, and not by analyzing a religious text, but by presenting the logical and empirical case for exactly what his view is. For example, Jesus would probably define his terms (What is hate? What is honor? What is love?), and from an analysis of the nature of these things, he would demonstrate how a certain attitude or behavior follows (an attitude or behavior he would again carefully define and explicate), and he would show how his statements cohere, and why. Instead, McFall has to do that. If anything, that would sooner make McFall the philosopher and not Jesus. But even McFall is not engaging in philosophy, but exegesis.
19. Do Real Philosophers Use Dry Prosaic Language?
McFall continues his "pop teachers are better than real philosophers" anti-elitist bigotry when he says "Jesus could have used dry prosaic language, like the guys in academics" but instead, unlike them, he "opted to use colorful language" and "pithy expressions" in order "to heighten crowd interest." Again, that does not make Jesus a philosopher—to the contrary, it more likely takes him out of that category and puts him in that of popular teachers (like Mark Twain, George Carlin, Pat Robertson, et al.), unless Jesus also did what philosophers do, which is, for example: (1) present a logical analysis involving definitions of terms, and (2) reason to a conclusion from an examination of the nature of things. But Jesus didn't. And McFall concedes this, admitting that "Jesus didnt leave us a system of thought." So in every respect that defines a philosopher, Jesus fails to adhere, and in every respect that defines what is merely a popular teacher, Jesus conforms perfectly.
Hence McFall's own evidence convicts him and confirms my original point, here quoting from my original essay: "First is the general point that Jesus should be reckoned a philosopher. This is obvious, insofar as practically any reasoned thinker on life counts as such. However, this is not what experts generally mean by the word." McFall has done absolutely nothing to challenge this statement. Instead, he has tried to argue that Jesus counts as a philosopher because he is totally different from all other philosophers, which hardly even makes sense. And even to the extent that it makes sense, it isn't correct. McFall is apparently fond of trying to paint Jesus as a great philosopher because, unlike all other stuffy, boring philosophers, Jesus alone used "colorful language" and "pithy expressions," and wasn't "dry and prosaic." I have already explained how that is not what makes someone a philosopher. But more telling is the fact that McFall is wrong to assume that other real philosophers didn't do exactly the same as Jesus—only, at the same time, and unlike Jesus, still actually doing philosophy.
Of course, one can find "colorful language" and "pithy expressions" aplenty in Plato, who presents his philosophy in the ordinary, casual, and popular discourse of his day. There is nothing "dry" or "prosaic" in his writings, not even in his letters. But the man most credited with founding the "popular appeal" school of philosophical discourse is Bion of Borysthenes in the 3rd century B.C., perfecting what is known as the "diatribe," a method of philosophical argument rooted in "colorful language" and "pithy expressions." He was inspired by the doctrine of Epicurus that philosophy should be promulgated in ordinary, non-technical language. Not only did Epicurus defend such a point—exactly the point McFall wants to claim for Jesus, even though, in fact, Jesus never actually made, much less defended, any such "point" but merely spoke that way (the very difference between a philosopher and a teacher)—but Epicurus also presented editions of his philosophical system organized in lists of "colorful" and "pithy" sayings, adopting the pre-philosophical technique that would eventually be copied by the authors of Q, from which (many scholars argue) most of the sayings of Jesus derive. But unlike Epicurus, who defended his sayings philosophically and tied them into a coherent system of thought, Q stands more in the tradition of the earlier, pre-philosophical teachers, like Solon, whose lists of "colorful" and "pithy" sayings were rather famous in those days. But just as Solon was no philosopher, neither was Jesus. Indeed, this comparison is most apt, since Jesus has far more in common with Solon than Socrates.
One of the most famous "pupils" of Bion's method of argument is Seneca. Yet Seneca was still a philosopher in the formal sense, most especially in his special discourses, but even, though to a lesser extent, his letters. It will suffice to quote one section of one such letter, to see how (1) Seneca uses "colorful language" and "pithy expressions" and is not "dry" or "prosaic" and yet at the same time (2) Seneca conducts philosophical argument in precisely the way Jesus does not: he names and discusses actual philosophers who had important things to say, he states a thesis and defends it with logical argument or appeals to evidence, he resolves apparent contradictions, he explains what he thinks might be obscure, and he relates everything to his own coherent system of thought.
So you may know there's an idea of good conduct present subconsciously even in souls which have been led to the most depraved ways, and that men are not ignorant of what evil is but simply don't care—I say that all men hide their sins, and, even even if their goal is successful, they enjoy the results while concealing the sins themselves. A good conscience wishes to come forward and be seen by men. But wickedness fears the very shadows. Hence I hold what Epicurus said to be most apt: "That the guilty might remain hidden is possible; that he should be sure of remaining hidden is not possible," or, if you think the meaning can be made clearer this way: "The reason it is no advantage to wrong-doers to remain hidden is that even if they have the good fortune, they do not have the assurance of keeping it." This is what I mean: crimes can be well guarded, but free from anxiety the criminal cannot be.
This view, I maintain, is not at variance with the principles of our school, if it is explained like this. And why? Because the first and worst penalty for sin is to have committed sin. And crime, though Fortune deck it out with her favors, though she protect and take it in her charge, can never go unpunished, since the punishment of crime lies in the crime itself. But none the less do these second penalties press close upon the heels of the first: constant fear, constant terror, and distrust of one's own security.
Why, then, should I set wickedness free from such a punishment? Why should I not always leave it trembling in the balance? Let us disagree with Epicurus on the one point, when he declares there is no natural justice, and that crime should be avoided only because we cannot escape the fear which results from it. But let us agree with him on the other point—that bad deeds are lashed by the whip of conscience, that conscience is tortured to the greatest degree because unending anxiety drives and whips it on, and it cannot rely upon the security of its own peace of mind. For this, Epicurus, is the very proof that we are by nature reluctant to commit crime, because even in circumstances of safety there is no one who does not feel fear. Good luck frees many men from punishment, true, but it frees no man from fear. And why should this be if it were not true that we have ingrained in us a loathing for what Nature has condemned?
Hence even men who hide their sins can never count on remaining hidden. For their conscience convicts them and reveals them to themselves. Indeed, it is the very property of guilt to be in fear. It would be bad for us, given the many crimes which escape the vengeance of the law and the prescribed punishments, were it not that those grievous offenses against nature must pay the penalty in ready money, and that, in place of suffering the punishment, there comes fear. (Seneca, Moral Epistles 97.12-16)
This seems quite intelligible and colorful. It is not dry or too prosaic. Yet look at all the detail here—that detail is what makes this a passage of philosophy, yet it is that detail which is missing from the discourse of Jesus. Now consider a public discourse of Maximus of Tyre, and note how he defines his terms, and reasons transparently from logic and evidence, things Jesus does not typically do, and yet Maximus speaks in a popular idiom and uses colorful and engaging analogies:
What is the characteristic that distinguishes man from beast? And what is it that distinguishes god from man? In my opinion, men are superior to beasts in knowledge, and inferior to gods in wisdom. God is wiser than man. But man is more knowledgable than beast. "Do you take it then that 'knowledge' and 'wisdom' are different things?" No, by God! No more than I take it that life is different from life. But in this case, granted that the attribute of life is shared by mortal creation with the immortal, the shortness of a human lifespan nevertheless separates the two, even though they participate equally in the same basic quality 'life'. The life of a god is eternal; that of a man ephemeral.
Imagine eyes that had the power to see eternally, to project an unblinking gaze and to receive the incoming rays of light without interruption. Imagine they had no need of eyelids to shelter them, nor sleep to rest them, nor night to bring them peace. The faculty of sight would be something those eyes shared with normal vision. But the two cases would differ in the degree of continuity involved. In precisely the same way knowledge, though a shared quality, nevertheless differs in its human and divine manifestations. Divine knowledge we will perhaps consider on some future occasion. For now, let us turn our attention to what is most familiar to us. What are 'understanding' and 'knowing' and 'learning' in human terms, along with all the other similar expressions we use when we attribute a contemplative disposition to the soul?
Are we perhaps to give the name 'knowledge' to anything that is gradually assembled by the operations of sense-perception and then given the name 'experience', and finally presented to the soul and stamped with the seal of reasoned thought? Let me give you an example of the kind of thing I mean. The first men, before they had ever seen a boat, began to long for some means of visiting distant peoples. Need drew them on, but the sea stood in their way. They saw birds flying down out of the sky and swimming. They saw flotsam carried buoyantly along on the surface of the waves—even the occasional tree-trunk, carried down by a river into the sea. People followed: either someone was swept away against his will, started to move his arms and legs, and so swam to safety; or perhaps he went in voluntarily, to play around.
The first result, once experience had gathered all these instances together and constructed the notion of a voyage, was a lowly kind of raft, an improvised 'ship' made from pieces of buoyant material lashed together. But gradually perception and reason, advancing in step, attained a sufficient degree of sophistication to allow the invention of a concave vessel powered by oars and sail, driven along by the wind and steered with rudders, and to entrust the responsibility for its safe-keeping to the single, distinct science of navigation.
Furthermore (to give a second example), it is said that in the distant past the science of medicine was invented in the following manner. If someone fell sick, his relatives would carry him to a well-frequented thoroughfare and set him down there. People would then come up to him and enquire as to the nature of his pain, and if anyone had suffered from the same malady, and then been helped by some kind of food, or by cautery or surgery or by going without liquid, they would severally suggest these to the sufferer, on the basis of their own previous sickness and cure. This whole process, of exploiting the similarities between different patients' sufferings to gather together a record of measures that had proved helpful, little by little, with its accumulating series of encounters, produced a science. Carpentry and metal-working and weaving and painting were all discovered in the same way, each and every one of them being guided to completion by the light of experience.
Very well. Are we then to define knowledge as a habituation of the soul to any given human function or activity? Or does this capacity extend also to brute beasts? Perception and experience are after all not distinctive to man. Beasts, too, perceive and learn from experience, which would give them also a claim to knowledge....Perhaps, then, the truth is that reason is distinctive of man...[etc.]
It is beyond dispute that these passages, which are in fact not even the best examples of hundreds I could have chosen, of Seneca and Maximus engaging in the activity of philosophy, are nothing at all like what we have from Jesus. And the very differences—in content, in method, in detail, in explanatory quality, in questions being asked, in answers being sought—are what define these passages as passages of philosophy (as opposed to what we might find, say, in the writings of Aulus Gellius or the teachings of Solon of Athens). Yet these are the very attributes lacking from the extant teachings of Jesus. Jesus is different from Seneca and Maximus in precisely that respect that makes the latter two men philosophers. And therefore it simply isn't sensible to elevate Jesus to their level or category.
Even if you wanted to argue that the difference is merely of degree (an argument that would be highly dubious at best), it still cannot be denied, even by McFall, that there is a huge difference in degree: Seneca and Maximus are certainly far more like philosophers than Jesus, and thus are more deserving of a place in the philosophical canon. So now for the punchline: neither Seneca nor Maximus get any entry in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. How, then, can McFall claim Jesus should get one? Seneca and Maximus certainly make the cut for any complete list of formal philosophers. But if they don't get into a dictionary or course book, a fortiori neither should Jesus.
20. Was Socrates Just an Artful Dodger?
McFall then claims that "according to Carriers own standard in light of his evaluation of Jesus, Socrates doesnt make the cut as a bona fide philosopher" because, like Jesus, Socrates only ever answered a question with a question. Well, Mr. McFall, please try reading what Socrates said before jumping to conclusions like this. If you had done this, you would have discovered that he often "engaged issues and resolved them" and did "make his reasoning explicit" and did "address all issues of an argument, aiming at a complete discussion of the facts and obvious questions," all the things you falsely claim he didn't do. It is certainly true that Jesus didn't do these things. But Socrates did (for example, see my discussion of Socrates' doctrines in section 5 above).
It is most ironic that McFall's only evidence is a quotation from an enemy of Socrates (Hippias), not any quotation from Socrates himself or his followers (like, say, Xenophon). And it is most embarrassing that McFall didn't bother to check the context! McFall said "it was Xenophon who recorded Hippias as saying that Socrates was 'always questioning and refuting everybody but never willing to submit to examination or reveal his own opinion about anything'." Now, this quote comes from a chapter that begins, in Xenophon's own words, "Concerning Justice, Socrates did not hide his opinion." Okay. That says exactly the opposite of what McFall claims. Shall I say "Ooops!"
To make matters worse, what Hippias says is not what Socrates actually does, but what he shouldn't do, and as we shall see, Socrates agrees. Here is the passage McFall quotes—in context:
Hippias: But I vow you shall not hear [my answer] unless you first declare your own opinion about the nature of Justice. For it's enough that you mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.
Socrates: Indeed, Hippias! Haven't you noticed that I never cease to declare my notions of what is just?...
...I [also] declare them by my deeds, anyhow, if not by my words. Don't you think that deeds are better evidence than words?
Hippias: Yes, much better, of course...
...[but] even now, Socrates, you are clearly endeavouring to avoid stating what you think Justice to be. You are saying not what the just do, but what they don't do.
Socrates: Well, I thought that unwillingness to do injustice was sufficient proof of Justice. But, if you don't think so, see whether you like this better: I say that what is lawful is just.
Hippias: Do you mean, Socrates, that lawful and just are the same thing?
Socrates: I do.
Socrates goes on to discuss at length several more questions about Justice and what he means by it, at one point giving a lengthy discourse on the subject involving several analogies. So McFall's claim that Socrates didn't do this is not only false, but demonstrably false even in the very same passage McFall cites in his defense! And notice what is different here. Does Socrates ask a question to avoid answering a question? No. Socrates willingly answers questions, and never avoids making his position clear in the end. Yet that is exactly what Jesus avoids doing by asking a question and leaving it at that, ending all discussion.
So McFall again completely missed my point. I did not mean that answering a question with a question was bad form. I meant that ending discussion with a question is bad form. Here are the relevant two paragraphs exactly as I wrote them, emphasis now added to highlight what McFall conveniently ignored (and which is all exactly the opposite for Socrates than for Jesus):
If Jesus really did care about logic and argument, he would have engaged these issues and resolved them. But he does not. Instead, his reasoning and argument is always thin and brief, and thus ultimately ambiguous and incomplete. It is also presented as absolute: Jesus leaves little opportunity for anyone to debate him. Once he has presented his argument, discussion ends. There is no rebuttal allowed. For example, note that Luke and Matthew follow the "falling house" argument with a second argument that is no less fallacious ("by whom do your men expel demons?"). It does no good asking who the other exorcists serve, since the same charge could have been leveled at them, too, without contradiction. Moreover, answering a question with a question is just a clever way to avoid answering the original question in the first place. This is not the act of someone who takes logic and argument seriously, or as anything more than a clever way to get one over on your enemies.
A real philosopher makes his reasoning explicit, and addresses all issues of an argument, aiming at a complete discussion of the facts and obvious questions. The pursuit of truth demands no less, and "philosophy" means [in effect] the "love of truth." But Jesus never does this. He simply pronounces, and ends all debate with a single clever quip, often with little more than an argument full of holes and ambiguities which are never addressed in public, and hardly much more in private. Mark even has Jesus saying he is being deliberately obscure and will reveal his true meaning only in secret to a select few (e.g. Mark 4:33-34). That is definitely not the behavior of someone who has a deep concern for logic and argument. So I think this claim [that Jesus had a strong concern for logic and argument] is also exaggerated.
Remember what I said about keeping your eye on the ball? Note how the actual point of this section of my essay was that the claim "Jesus had a strong concern for logic and argument" is exaggerated. Notice how McFall all but ignores that point and really doesn't even challenge it. Instead, he nitpicks on something completely unrelated to the point—the point being that Groothius made an insupportable claim about Jesus's qualifications as a philosopher—and tries instead to promote Jesus by demoting Socrates—which is foolhardy, since at best it would only argue for the latter's removal from the canon, not for the inclusion of Jesus! Such is the fallacious point-dodging that seems so attractive to McFall.
And McFall's argument is not only fallacious, but false. In particular: when he uses his famous Socratic method, Socrates employs questions constructively to demonstrate that his interlocutor already knows the answer to his own question, the answer that Socrates himself endorses, and he makes this endorsement and explanation explicit in the end. Jesus does not do this. Rather than his question being aimed at showing the Pharisees that they already knew the answer to their own question, and that Jesus shared that answer, Jesus utterly fails to answer the question at all. His question is aimed not at clarifying the matter, but obscuring it, exactly as I explained. So Jesus is not using the Socratic method—which requires a regular course of give-and-take on both sides, ever aiming at gradually arriving at a mutually-agreed solution to the problem in question. It does not consist of asking a fallacious question and then walking away. But that is the difference between a philosopher and a mere ideologue.
21. By Whom Did Jesus Cast Out Demons?
The example at issue above was this: McFall claims that "Jesus was not suggesting that when a minor element, such as a subordinate 'satrap' has gone awry, [then] the whole house folds" but rather that, for example, if "the 'Parthian king' is at irreconcilable odds on serious matters with his top Royal Officials, the empire is likely to collapse or be overthrown." But this misses the point. The problem is this: if that is what Jesus meant, then he didn't understand the charge against him, and his response completely fails to address it. Thus, McFall's own point proves my case. The charge was that Jesus was expelling demons because he was carrying out the will of a higher ranking demon (Beelzebul, equivalent to "Baal," the God of the Philistines). In other words, the claim is that Jesus, like the Parthian King, is expelling or removing his satraps, i.e. exercising the power of Satan, which entailed that Jesus was an agent of Satan. How does Jesus defend himself against that charge?
How can Satan cast out Satan? (Mk. 3:23; Mt. 12:26; cf. Lk. 11:18)
Does that work as a defense? No. He is not accused of expelling Satan. To the contrary, he is accused of being Satan, or otherwise serving Satan's will (Mk. 3:22; Mt. 12:24; Lk. 11:15), to expell subordinates of Satan. So Jesus tries to end the debate by asking a fallacious question. He never even denies being possessed by or serving Satan! Nor does he present any evidence that he is not, nor does he present any logical reason why he could not be. If this is philosophy, it's sham philosophy.
And if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. (Mk. 3:24, cf. 3:25-26; Mt. 12:25; Lk. 11:17-18)
Does that work as a defense? No. He is not accused of dividing Satan's kingdom. To the contrary, he is accused of serving it, and thus strengthening it. Does Jesus present any evidence to the contrary? No. Does Jesus present any logic as to how what he was doing would entail dividing Satan's kingdom? No. Nor could he, for the very reasons I explained in my original essay: expelling demons is Satan's business—the very reason people thought Jesus could be doing Satan's work! Just as the Parthian King can strengthen his kingdom by moving or removing satraps, so can Satan, and that is exactly what Jesus is being accused of. But instead of answering that charge, he alleges that what he is doing would be destructive of Satan's kingdom. But he does not explain how that could be—he gives no evidence, no logical argument. He doesn't even claim that this is indeed what he was doing! He merely presents a conditional (if this, then that), without ever connecting that conditional to the actual facts of Jesus's mission. Thus, the charge remains unanswered—indeed, it is cleverly dodged with nothing but misleading innuendo!
But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house. (Mk. 3:27; Mt. 12:29; Lk. 11:21-22)
I will set aside the fact that the analogy requires additional assumptions (e.g. that for some reason you can't sneak past the strongman, that for some reason the strongman is never away on business, etc.), since these are all reasonable assumptions for Satan's charge over his demons, and that is the analogy Jesus is drawing. He is arguing that one can only expel demons by first binding Satan, and thus Jesus is claiming he is superior to Satan. Does that work as a defense? No. This response again completely ignores the charge: that Jesus is the strongman, or at least one of his henchmen. Jesus is not being accused of "plundering" Satan's house. So his plundering analogy completely fails to address the charge. Indeed, Jesus doesn't even present any evidence or any logical reason why we should conclude that he expels demons by binding rather than serving Satan. In fact, Jesus again doesn't even claim to have bound Satan, nor does he claim not to serve him! All Jesus offers is, again, fallacious innuendo. That's just verbal legerdemain, the very antithesis of philosophy.
"Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin," [which Jesus said] because they were saying "He has an unclean spirit." (Mk. 3:28-30; Mt. 12:30-32; cf. Lk. 11:23)
So here Jesus ends with a threat! Not only did he present three fallacious arguments-by-innuendo, and never once even deny the charge against him, much less present any evidence or argument in his defense against that charge, but his last word on the subject is to proclaim that his accusers had better shut up, or else they will be damned to hell forever and never gain salvation. In other words, "If you accuse me of serving Satan, I will never forgive you. Therefore, I am not serving Satan." This is the infamous fallacy ad baculum.
I ask again: Where is the philosophy here? Is this how a philosopher behaves? Or is it how an ideologue behaves? I think you all know the answer. It is thus quite shocking that McFall ignores the fallacious character of these arguments, and pretends they are examples of valid logic ("Here, step-by-step, we discover Jesus used reasoning skills which include...the argument from analogy...the law of logical or rational inference ...reductio ad absurdum...the law of contradiction...and the law of excluded middle...[so] we see that Jesus had concern for logic"). That seems quite egregious to me. Jesus never responds to a charge, never even denies the charge, or presents any evidence or argument in his defense against that charge, but instead issues a string of innuendos that are in fact wholly impertinet to the charge and useless in his defense. And McFall holds that up as an example of having a "concern for logic"? I am dumbfounded by his audacity.
22. What About Women?
McFall asks me to tell him whether "these elites show[ed] compassion, or sensitivity, or respect to women in the way Jesus did." I already did say that, so I am not sure why he is asking me to repeat myself. My words were: "there is nothing Jesus said or did that was at all uncharacteristic of any educated Gentile." I should have qualified that (see below). But if we limit our discussion to what Jesus did and said, then there will be few examples McFall can find of any Greek or Roman philosopher doing or saying anything worse. There are certainly a few (relatively mild) examples, but as far as I'm concerned, the fact that McFall still has not adduced even a single example settles the issue of whether "only a handful of philosophers" matched whatever evident feminism we can infer from Jesus. That claim remains undefended. Indeed, McFall has not demonstrated that he even could have known the claim was true in the first place—or that he knows it even now. Where is his evidence?
In contrast, McFall claims that "Jesus conveyed the notion that women deserve respect! (Mt. 5:28)." I have no idea where he gets that notion from "every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." What has that to do with the treatment of women? That is a statement about not having private sexual fantasies about women—it says nothing about any other behavior toward them. And if McFall means that actual sexual restraint was a unique teaching of Jesus, he would be sadly mistaken—almost every philosopher on record advocated that. So is this the best example McFall has to offer? This is exactly the problem I pointed out originally: Jesus is not that much different in his treatment of and attitudes toward women than most educated men of his day. Sure, I will agree that "To the Greeks, that concept [of refraining from sexual fantasy] was for the most part foreign" but that has nothing to do with the question. The question is: was a Jesus-style "respectful treatment" of women foreign to the Greeks? Or the Romans? McFall has not shown this to be so.
McFall cites only Demosthenes, which again betrays McFall's unwillingness to pay attention to what I actually wrote. I was talking about the people "of his day," in other words the Roman period. I thought this was clear from my explanation that the improved attitude toward women among elites originated with the philosophers of the Hellenistic period, such as Epicurus and the Stoics, i.e. it originated with them and only by the Roman period became commonplace among elites. Demosthenes predates even the philosophers I name as originators of the improved attitude. He is certainly not anywhere near a contemporary of Jesus—he had been dead almost four centuries by then. So why does McFall cite him? (Indeed, why does he think the actual quote he gives has anything to do with the issue? Do not thousands of men keep mistresses and cavort with hookers even today? Are we to assume men can't do this and still be compassionate toward these women and respect them as human beings? Maybe McFall would argue so, but where does Jesus argue this?)
McFall also ignores what I wrote when he tries to chastise me with statements like "he should know full well that the Greeks had restrictive rules governing women too." Hmmm. Did McFall's eyes glaze over when he reached my words "Everything women actually had yet to win in the way of equality (especially political rights and complete parity under the law) gets narry a word from Jesus" (emphasis added). I also noted that women enjoyed more respect among Romans than Greeks. So not only should I have known what McFall says, I did know it, and in fact actually said it! What is McFall playing at here? Did he really miss those words, or is he trying to impugn me by falsely implying I did not say something that in fact I did? And why did he not respond to the salient point here? The very "restrictive rules" he criticises the Greeks for are never condemned by Jesus. Hence my conclusion: Jesus is no different than they are.
McFall also belittles the copious evidence that women were treated as near equals to men in the realm of education and the intellect. He seems to think that is trivial. Of course, to think that is trivial is itself rather chauvanistic. And I chose that issue for a reason—a reason evidently lost on McFall. In the Jewish community through which Jesus moved and to which he preached, women were forbidden to learn the Torah or to become rabbis. Yet Jesus never spoke a word against this, never once said this exclusion was wrong, never once said a female teacher was equal to a male one, or that women should be taught the same things as men. To be fair, he never praised learning at all. Yet education is the primary vessel through which women could ever and have ever won their rights and the respect of society, and denying them education has been and still is the one primary means by which women are kept in subjugation (consider, for example, their treatment in hardline Islamic nations today). It is thus very significant that the Greeks and Romans gave this to women, but Jesus spoke narry a word against his fellow Jews denying their own women this.
However, I should qualify what I did write, since I see now that I gave the impression of universal assent. That isn't true even today, much less then. Even now, in this country, I can find misogynistic statements and disrepectful treatment of women. But it would not follow that 21st century America is a bastion of oppression for women. Quite the contrary: it represents the farthest women have ever come toward freedom and equality. Much farther than I'll bet Jesus would ever have sanctioned, and certainly much farther than he ever explicitly advocated. But even more so, many misogynists remained in antiquity. I am surprised, for example, that McFall did not cite Juvenal or Livy, famous for their diatribes against all the freedom and respect women were getting in their day. Perhaps McFall avoided them because their rants only prove my point: these men would not be writing such angry tracts unless the liberty and status of women really was so commonly high among elites as I said. After all, why would they attack what wasn't true?
Of course, Livy and Juvenal are not philosophers, and this brings up another important qualification. I often mistakenly wrote of "all elites" when the issue was "most philosophers." I will certainly concede that there were women-haters among the elite, who were more brazen than they would dare be today. But what I said remains firm in the case of actual philosophers. I am not aware of a single misogynist philosopher. I do know that some philosophers regarded women as moral equals but intellectual inferiors, but Jesus never says where he stood on that subject anyway, so we cannot say his position was any different. And this brings us back to the point I originally made in my original essay: most if not all philosophers were right with Jesus, if not beyond, in their treatment of and attitudes toward women.
So it is most astonishing that McFall would make the embarrassingly false claim that "Carrier would be hard pressed to cite for us philosophers who communicated the idea that women werent sex objects." The reverse is true: McFall will be hard pressed to find any philosopher who communicated the idea that women were sex objects. Indeed, pick any philosopher at random, for whom we have a substantial quantity of writing, and I am pretty sure the odds are rather good you will find more in his corpus favoring respect for women than you will in the extant sayings of Jesus. It is thus bizarre that McFall would claim what is in fact exactly opposite the truth. Didn't he check?
You can contrast the status of women in Hellenistic and then Roman times with that in Jewish society in the time of Jesus by reviewing Elisabeth Tetlow's essay "The Status of Women in Greek, Roman and Jewish Society" online. This presents all the ways that women were still belittled and oppressed even in Roman society—none of which was ever denounced by Jesus. It also presents all the ways that women were better off in Roman society than in Jewish society—any of which is comparable to whatever we can infer from the doings and sayings of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus was unremarkable in his treatment of and attitude toward women—except among Jews, exactly as I said. McFall has presented no evidence to the contrary.
In contrast, for example, why do we not find anything even close to this from Jesus?
Women, as well as men...have received from the gods the gift of reason...and the female has the same senses as the male...one has nothing more than the other. Moreover, not men alone, but women, too, have a natural inclination toward virtue and the capacity for acquiring it, and it is the nature of women no less than men to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these....Yes, but I assure you, some will say, that women who associate with philosophers are bound to be arrogant for the most part and presumptuous, in that abandoning their own households and turning to the company of men they practice speeches, talk like sophists, and analyze syllogisms, when they ought to be sitting at home spinning. I should not expect the women who study philosophy to shirk their appointed tasks for mere talk any more than men, but I maintain that their discussions should be conducted for the sake of their practical application. For as there is no merit in the science of medicine unless it conduces to the healing of man's body, so if a philosopher has or teaches reason, it is of no use if it does not contribute to the virtue of the human soul. (Musonius Rufus, "That Women Too Should Study Philosophy")
On the actual importance of education, in elevating, ennobling, and enriching women, which McFall regards as so trivial, one also wonders why we never hear anything from Jesus like this:
The study of philosophy, in the first place, diverts women from all untoward conduct. For a woman studying geometry will be ashamed to be a stripper, and she will not swallow any beliefs in magic charms while she is under the charm of Plato's or Xenophon's words. And if anyone professes power to pull down the moon from the sky, she will laugh at the ignorance and stupidity of women who believe these things, inasmuch as she herself is not unschooled in astronomy....For if women do not receive the seed of good doctrines and share with their husbands in intellectual advancement, they, left to themselves, conceive many untoward ideas and low designs and emotions....but [a woman] will achieve a high and noble self-esteem if she shares not only in the roses but also in the fruits which the Muses bring and graciously bestow upon those who admire education and philosophy. (Plutarch, "Advice to Bride and Groom" 48 = Moralia 145c-146a)
Even pagan chauvanism was more enlightened than McFall seems aware. For example:
Control ought to be exercised by a husband over his wife, not as the owner has control of a piece of property, but, as the soul controls the body, by entering into her feelings and being knit to her through goodwill. As, therefore, it is possible to exercise care over the body without being a slave to its pleasures and desires, so it is possible to govern a wife and at the same time to delight and gratify her. (Plutarch, "Advice to Bride and Groom" 33 = Moralia 142e)
Again, we have nothing at all like this from Jesus. We cannot say Jesus held any better sentiment than this. Indeed, we cannot say Jesus even held this sentiment, since he is silent on the issue. And yet here we have the very compassion and sensitivity McFall thinks I should have had a hard time finding. Similar passages can be adduced from writers as diverse as Apuleius and Pliny, and from Plutarch to Seneca.
McFall concludes by citing only a doctored quote regarding the criterion I set forth for inclusion in the canons of formal philosophy, namely that such an inclusion will "familiariz[e] readers with philosophical systems and elucidat[e] those connections with known and influential traditions." Not only does he not have any evidence that Jesus meets even this criterion, but he has misquoted me besides, leaving out the crucial phrases "of systematic thinkers," and traditions "in philosophy," and all that I said about those two terms and their importance to the definition. McFall has also avoided responding to numerous fatal points that I made in my original essay, by picking at secondary issues, and he has dodged any response to my troublesome examples (such as the fact that Reverend Moon qualifies as a philosopher on McFall's own view far more than Jesus does). He has even resorted to fallacies and falsehoods. Again, the best remedy is reading my original essay. For McFall has hopelessly distorted it.
But even within the context of his own distortions and dodging of issues, McFall has no case. He says that "in light of that criteria" (the criterion he claims I set but that in fact he fatally doctored with crucial omissions) "its obvious Jesus makes the cut as a bona fide philosopher." Why?
The issue is not whether Jesus got ideas from or regurgitated philosophical truisms, even if he altered them or personalized them or syncretized them with Jewish theology or whatever—for thousands of teachers in history have done and still do that. Reverend Moon, again, is a perfect example. But so is Robert Ingersoll. Mark Twain. George Carlin. Pat Robertson. Deepak Chopra. Where should I stop? How is Jesus any more of a philosopher than these guys? McFall has no answer—except to say that Jesus was more popular. But philosophy is not a popularity contest. It is an activity of developing systematic concepts addressing questions about the nature of things in a logical way. There is no sign Jesus did any such thing. And for all his handwaving, McFall has yet to present a single piece of evidence that he did.
In the end, McFall complains that the fact "that Jesus didnt articulate His ideas in detailed systematic layouts shouldnt be held against Him." Funny. I thought that was just what I said. Did McFall (yet again!) not notice? Well, maybe he dozed off when he read the following words in my original essay:
I see nothing wrong with trying to identify the method of reasoning and the underlying worldview of a thinker like the Gospel Jesus, as for any influential teacher in history. We do not have to call him a philosopher to see the utility of such a study. Nor is it even necessary to ensure that the Gospel Jesus is the real Jesus: the method of reasoning and the underlying worldview of the Gospel authors is no less important.
Translation: that Jesus isn't a philosopher shouldn't be held against him.
But he still isn't a philosopher.
 A digression is warranted for those who are concerned here: McFall claims "Buddha regarded the theoretical treatment of metaphysical questions as harmful" and that "Confucius avoided metaphysical questions in general." Both statements are slightly misleading. Buddha's philosophy was very complex metaphysically...in fact, unlike the doctrines of Socrates, Buddhism from the start was entirely founded on an elaborate system of metaphysical premises about the nature of being, the nature of the soul, and the nature of the universe, largely inherited from Hindu thought.
It should instead be said that, just as Socrates thought studying useless knowledge was harmful, but at the same time also thought that many physical and metaphysical questions were not useless and thus were in fact essential subjects of study (cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1, 1.4, 3.14, 4.3, 4.6, 4.7, etc.), so also did Buddha regard different metaphysical questions as variously either harmful or essential to the pursuit of his philosophy. See later on when I quote a large section of the Potthapada Sutta for examples of Buddha's teachings on epistemology and metaphysics.
So also Confucius: like Socrates, he was concerned only with the practical uses of knowledge, and for essentially the same reasons. But he did not declare all metaphysics off limits, only discussions of gods and prodigies (Analects 7.20), though he did declare skepticism regarding the afterlife (ibid. 11.11). In contrast, Analects 5.23 says only that he "rarely" discussed human nature and providence (or that what he did say was "hard to comprehend," translators Watson and Huang dispute which), but a survey of the Analects shows he did discuss them on occasion. Likewise, Confucius both edited and endorsed the Six Classics as all but holy writ (e.g. ibid. 7.1), yet they contain a lot of metaphysical digressions (especially the Tso Ch'uan), which betray the keen hand of Confucius.
Even so, I think Confucius is the least of philosophers—or else that too little survives of his actual teachings—and to include him in philosophy references is gratuitous. His pupils and ideological descendants (like Mo and Hsün, and Han Fei and Wang Ch'ung) are far more worthy of the name, and far more important. But at least Confucius engaged in defining terms, and constructing a coherent system, the most fundamental of formal philosophical exercises, and thus, as an originator of the greatest philosophy in the Far East, he has a certain prestige among philosophers today. But it is excessive prestige in my opinion. It should be transferred instead to several other far more important Chinese philosophers in the Confucian tradition.
 I should also add that we do not in fact know the chronological order of Plato's works. There are many tendentious schemes in circulation (the first was developed in the 1st century, over three centuries after Plato's death), none with any sure footing. The Apology is placed first only by conjecture: it would make sense that Plato would publish that speech before he began to write the other dialogues, though I can think of reasons why he would delay, so this is not a slam dunk assumption.
 Cf. Plato, Apology 18b, 19a-d, and especially 20c-d. For example, 19d is certainly a rhetorical lie (Socrates the Lawyer is much in evidence here!), as we will see when we consult the witness of Xenophon. And contrary to Socrates' denials based on exaggerated humility at 19c, Aristophanes was not making everything up: like all humor, the jokes in The Clouds were only funny because they exaggerated what was basically true.
 See, for example, Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1.11-16 (but with his qualifications in 4.7). Even this section certainly entails a theoretical commitment by Socrates ("[On] that topic so favoured by other talkers, 'the Nature of the Universe' ... how it works, and on the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens ... he would argue that to trouble one's mind with such problems is sheer folly") as well as systematic argument in favor of others holding that position. Nevertheless, Xenophon's writings reveal that Socrates held extensive knowledge on the subject of physical science, and held and explicitly defended several (what we would today call) metaphysical doctrines, especially pertaining to the existence and nature of gods and souls, but also the ontology of abstract objects and other subjects. See also his discussions of epistemology and the fact that it is essential to ethics, ibid. 4.2, 4.4, 4.6, and 4.7; and his defense of creationist cosmology and physics, ibid. 4.3.
 For example, his attack on Antiphon and his school of thought in Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.6.
 McFall engages in the strangest of unhistorical reasoning when he concludes that a source that "reports no information not already available to us" necessarily "implies dependence." It certainly does not. Dependence requires special evidence—and simply reporting the same things is not evidence of dependence any more than evidence that what is being reported is true. Contrast the evidence adduced for Luke and Matthew's dependence on Mark, and that adduced (or I should say not adduced) by McFall. Conversely, "unique" stories do not automatically gain credence as McFall also implies—for uniqueness can just as easily imply fabrication. It is most strange that McFall's reasoning on both points entails that having only one source for a particular statement is better than having several! Now that sure sounds like typical apologetic blather to me: up is down and sideways is straight ahead. So long as it rescues Jesus from being just another popular teacher among thousands like him. Whatever McFall is doing, it isn't history.
Percent of Population
in Age Group
of Being Dead
by the End
of the Year
 See: John Dillery, Xenophon and the History of His Times (1995); P. R. McKechnie and S. J. Kern (hereafter "M & K"), Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (1988); I. A. F. Bruce (hereafter "Bruce"), An Historical Commentary on the "Hellenica Oxyrhynchia" (1967); E. W. Walker (hereafter "Walker"), The Hellenica Oxyrhynchia: Its Authorship and Authority (1913). Also: Abstract of Dissertation: Theramenes and Athenian Politics: A Study in the Manipulation of History. Contrast these with G. L. Cawkwell's polemical excesses in Xenophon: A History of My Times (1979), hereafter "Cawkwell."
 It should also be noted that even Cawkwell concedes, and demonstrates, that many of Xenophon's "omissions" were respectable and did not discredit him (pp. 33-35). And even those omissions that are lamentable nevertheless did not outright distort the truth: Xenophon never overtly claims that something didn't happen that actually did. Thus, Cawkwell's obsession with Xenophon's omissions is really very much irrelevant to the reliability of what Xenophon did write, the only issue relevant to McFall's critique (i.e. whether Xenophon tells the truth when he says what Socrates taught and discussed). In fact, Cawkwell's discussion of Xenophon's method (pp. 43-45) actually plays to the latter's credit: Xenophon censured evil by omitting it, not by lying about it, and rewarded virtue by recording it, not by inventing it. It is a wonder that Cawkwell thinks so ill of Xenophon, when the very evidence he evokes to discredit him more strongly implies the reverse.
In fact, when I surveyed all of Cawkwell's notes to the Hellenica I found him preferring the OH to Xenophon 92 times and preferring Xenophon to OH 3 times, and being uncertaim whom to prefer 5 times. However, of the 92 times he sides with OH, 27 of those are solely cases where Xenophon omits a fact that OH includes (pp. 56, 57, 94, 107, 117, 119, 160, 187, 201, 213, 254, 256, 282, 285, 292, 295, 301, 304, 308, 309, 322, 335, 341, 351, 359, 364, 405-08), and 47 more are solely cases where Xenophon does include the exact same fact, but merely provides fewer details (pp. 84, 89 , 93, 106, 108, 111, 118, 150, 151, 159, 163, 165, 176, 190, 197 (x2), 198, 219, 227, 234, 245 , 257, 258, 261, 263, 267, 279, 283 (x2), 291, 297, 308, 318, 323, 334, 328, 336, 337, 338, 343, 346, 363, 370, 384, 385, 392, 402). So 74 out of the only 92 discrepancies Cawkwell could find (that's a whopping 80%) are neither "fictions" nor "inaccuracies." Even for what Cawkwell regards as Xenophon's worst error, regarding the Battle of Sardis, it is still nothing more than an omission that he can accuse him of (pp. 405-08), and Cawkwell knows very well it is unfair to expect Xenophon to have known everything ("his account...may be no more and no less than personal memories," p. 117; "perhaps he heard very little about it all," p. 341; he wasn't personally present, p. 151), or to expect a thin book to match a massive multi-volume set in the provision of details ("Xenophon is writing memoirs, not history," p. 198; "Xenophon wrote for those who knew" and hence "his method was allusive" meaning "he saw no need to explain what everyone knew," p. 89; "if Xenophon had been carefully composing a history, an exact framework of Spartan admirals would have been essential, and this omission is tell-tale of his method and intention," p. 245; "Xenophon did not care to describe constitutions," p. 194).
What about the other 20% of discrepancies? They are mostly trivial. Xenophon misdates only two events (pp. 57, 154), gives less precise or more confusing chronology only twice (pp. 209, 310), and once Xenophon confuses western and eastern Locrians (p. 175); Xenophon is "wrong" about when a treaty ended, but in the passage in question he says "it was being said" by others, and thus Xenophon is not asserting that what they said was true (p. 257); he gives the wrong distance, but that could be a copy error and not Xenophon's (p. 101). That's 7 "errors," so 88% of the discrepancies are either not inaccuracies after all or they are trivial inaccuracies. The rest are all cases where Xenophon preserves the Spartain point of view, which Cawkwell only assumes distorts something (pp. 154, 209, 365, 262, 317), or otherwise "Xenophon reflects probably the views and the prejudices of Agesilaus and his circle" (pp. 132, 193, 216, 275, 297, 324). That's it. No actual cases of any confirmed "fictions," no proof of any serious "inaccuracies" at all. Indeed, Cawkwell laments that often "it is a pity that there is no way of knowing whether Xenophon is correct" (p. 344; 174 (x2), 265, 294), and concedes that "his great familiarity with Spartan life" is such that without his Hellenica "the obscurity surrounding Sparta would be ten times more opaque" (pp. 161, cf. 273).
This picture is only confirmed by all the other scholars who have examined the issue. Walker long ago observed that Xenophon was mainly only guitly of "omitting details" (p. 116), as those are mostly the only examples of "errors" that he can come up with (pp. 116-17, 124). Indeed, in one instance where he finds Xenophon making a claim that is doubted, that claim pertains to whether Theramenes was involved in a particular secret arrangement, which is a fact no historian would be likely to know for certain anyway (another case of guessing at what was secret: pp. 126-27; of omission: pp. 127-28; and one case of clear contradiction: pp. 128-30, but that pertains to mistaking one battle for others between the same two states, an easy, and fairly trivial error). What is better about OH are mainly just two things "the abundance of names, and the fullness of geographical detail" (p. 118, cf. 118-20). The actual disagreements also fall in this area, an example being the exact march of a particular army (pp. 120-23), whether an ambush was included, and where one of the generals was (either at the battle or away in another city). Though there are "many instances in which Xenophon has left out a detail which is essential to a correct understanding of the story" (p. 122), this is attributable to Xenophon either not having access to the relevant information, giving only a brief account assuming his readers knew the background, or wanting to omit the wicked or make the Spartans look better. Yet in one case, regarding the details of an embassy, "unquestionably Xenophon is right and OH wrong" (p. 125), OH often "shows little grasp of the political situation" while Xenophon "understands it better" (p. 132) and in regard to knowledge of the art of war, Xenophon is usually preferred (p. 118).
M & K's commentary locates six omissions (pp. 117, 118, 147, 149, 152, 177), five cases of giving fewer details (pp. 129, 148, 163, 182, 183), two trivial disagreements regarding the exact number of ships and what order they were launched (pp. 126, 129), conflicting accounts of a secret meeting (p. 135), making Spartans look better (p. 169), confusing naval commanders (p. 170), and who was present at an embassy (pp. 181-82). Pretty trivial stuff. Indeed, regarding Cawkwell's pet peve, the Battle of Sardis, though there is evidence that Xenophon is favoring Agesilaus (pp. 141-46), isn't clear where someone was during a battle (p. 146), or exactly what sort of troops were present (p. 147), nevertheless "recent work has tended to favour the view that Xenophon is right" about the Battle of Sardis (p. 145), and that in fact it is OH who "may have fabricated details" simply to be more detailed, especially when this created the appearance of an exciting stratagem, and evidence suggests Xenophon (unlike OH) was an eyewitness either to the battle itself or to the campaign (i.e. in a nearby city encamped with the Spartans; in fact, Bruce presents an excellent theory explaining all the discrepancies as the result of Xenophon simply relying on informants and plausible assumptions: cf. Bruce, pp. 150-56). On another disagreement, about where another battle occured, historians are undecided whom to prefer (pp. 167-69). That's it. No "fictions." Few if any "inaccuracies" beyond the trivial or the already-expected.
 For example: "he preferred to draw on his own memories" so "in the Hellenica at no point does he even hint at the use of others' histories" (which is also true of Thucydides, considered one of the greatest historians of antiquity), but as a result "his account is essentially lopsided and personal. He did not feel the need to use others. He himself knew. The Hellenica in a broad sense is entirely Xenophon's own experience" (p. 22), meaning he relied on his own observation and on personal informants, just like Herodotus and Thucydides and Polybius, but still it is true that "his own experiences inform much of his narrative" (p. 24) and "the Hellenica is not history. It is essentially memoirs" (p. 32), a distinction that neither I nor McFall have made up to now. Indeed, in many respects they are better than histories, as McFall must necessarily agree.
 Which essentials McFall cleverly avoids declaring, presumably because he knows that there isn't anywhere near the same scale of agreement on this issue for Jesus, as there is for Socrates (or Xenophon's account of the 4th century history of Greece for that matter). For almost any position McFall might assert that Jesus definitely held, I am fairly certain I can find some scholar or Christian who denies it, doubts it, or even claims the exact opposite. Though this would also be true for many things pertaining to the ideology of Socrates, we would still find overwhelming agreement on a great deal more than we do in the case of Jesus. But McFall would prefer to not only deny the obvious (that we are in a definitely better situation for Socrates than for Jesus), but to even turn reality upside down, and make what is worse the better, and what is better the worse. Which is an amusing irony to those of us who have actually read the last half of The Clouds.
In addition, I have long maintained that the reliability of ancient historians is exaggerated when it is compared to that of moderns (as many lay scholars implicitly do when they treat them as equal). Hence, the reliability I speak of is only relative. This does not affect my position regarding the Gospels—to the contrary, it explains that position, as one of relative inferiority, not of any black-and-white "accept all of this and reject all of that" mentality, as seems to blind McFall, despite his protestations to the contrary. For a solid account of the true "reliability" of all ancient historians generally (such as what we can trust and what we can't, when, and why), see: Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995).
 The fact that dozens of what McFall would probably call "bogus" Gospels were written already proves the point beyond any reasonable dispute, especially those whose very emphasis is the sayings and teachings of Jesus (like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary). But there is copious evidence even in the manuscript tradition of the canonical four—see: Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1993) and James Kelhoffers Miracle and Mission: The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark (2000).
 McFall also claims that Egerton "Ironically...cover[s] philosophical elements parallel to our discussion," but this again ignores the difference between an ordinary teacher or rabbi and an actual philosopher—the content of Egerton is no more philosophical in a formal sense than the canonical Gospels. See the translation and judge for yourself.
McFall also rejects the Gospel of Thomas as less reliable than the Gospels, but this is not the issue (it is nevertheless not in the canon and yet contains what may be authentic sayings also not in the canon). And his very position on Thomas also proves my point: no one can decide whose Jesus gets to count. For the entire Jesus Seminar believes Thomas is in many places as reliable a primary source as the standard canonical Gospels. Who is right? No one can really say—all we can do is assert our various contentious opinions. And that is a serious problem for anyone who claims to know the true philosophy of Jesus, even supposing Jesus actually had one in any formal sense of the term.
 This is more than obvious from the extant record of school exercises, documents, and letters in the Egyptian papyrological record. See: Raffaella Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (2001) and William Harris, Ancient Literacy (1989), as well as my Review of "The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark" (2000).
 This is probably a major reason why Ayn Rand is excluded from many philosophy references today: she completely ignored every contemporary philosopher and philosophical dispute and instead polemicized against long dead men. Yet she was certainly far more qualified as a bona fide philosopher than was Jesus.
 As just one example: b. Talmud, Sanhedrin 90b -91a.
 If you must choose between love and loyalty (as McFall here says Jesus is telling us to do), that will necessarily reduce the amount of love in the world. Likewise, "honor" is not inconsistent with "hate" (it is no more difficult to treat with respect those you despise, than it is to turn the other cheek when struck), so McFall's argument has no logical foundation. In addition, McFall conveniently ignores other passages that deeply challenge his analysis (e.g. Matthew 8:21-22, 10:35-38, 19:29; Luke 8:20-21, 9:59-62, 12:53). Likewise, in so doing, McFall simply trades one contradiction (love vs. hate) for another (honoring Jesus vs. honoring parents), and thus doesn't really get anywhere. And finally, McFall illogically ignores the word "hate" here. How can someone who commands us to hate not mean to increase the amount of hate? McFall again wants up to be down and sideways to be straight ahead, all so the Bible can mean exactly the opposite of what it says. He never seems to ask himself why on earth any half-reasonable philosopher would ever use the word "hate" here to begin with—if McFall is correct, then such a word is the worst possible vocabulary choice, and Jesus is one of the worst philosophers in history, with the communication skills of a D-average high school jock—unless Jesus meant what he said, which McFall cannot accept. We call that a rock and a hard place.
 This position came to be most thoroughly argued and defended by the famous scientist Ptolemy, who discusses exactly when plain language and technical language should be used and for what purpose, and what the advantages and disadvantages are of either, in his methodological treatise On the Criterion, chs. 4-6. That is an excellent example of a philosopher at work—and exactly unlike anything we hear from Jesus.
 Seneca gets a cross-reference, but is simply named once, in a paragraph listing Roman Stoics, in the entry for "Stoicism." No detail or discussion. But then, of course, Seneca actually wrote things—a lot of things—and wrote a great deal in the genre of philosophy (in the formal sense that the Dictionary is concerned with). Jesus did none of either. Maximus, by contrast, gets no mention at all, not even where he should be, in the entry for "Middle Platonism," which names no fewer than fourteen philosophers from the same general period.
 McFall also ignores my second example, an argument not found in Mark's version of the same encounter, but quoted by McFall and treated as valid without defense against my criticism: "If by Beelzebul I cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out?" (Mt. 12:27, cf. 12:28; Lk. 11:18-20). See my original essay's discussion of the fallacy inherent here, which McFall makes no response to. I should also add: yet again, it is most curious that Jesus never denies being an agent of Satan. He merely implies that he might be an agent of God instead, but he never actually says so. And, again, he never presents any argument or evidence supporting the latter over the former. And that, despite the fact that he was explicitly asked for such evidence (Lk. 11:16). This is shameless rhetoric, not philosophy. Curiously, this obfuscatory dodging is closer to what Socrates does in the Apology, which as I have already noted was not itself a work of philosophy.
 I also noted, though perhaps not clearly enough for McFall to grasp, that the issue was one of relative progress—i.e. attitudes among elites relative to what we can infer from what Jesus said and did—and not complete enlightenment, which was not substantially achieved by the human race until the 20th century, nor exhibited by Jesus as far as we know. Jesus never said, for example, that women were the intellectual equals of men, or that they even could, much less should, be admitted to full political rights and leadership positions fully on par with men.
 As we've seen at several points in the above sections. Indeed, McFall's blustering attempt to attack me at every turn ranges well into the bizarre when he makes the claim, both false and irrelevant, that Jesus would not attend "rich parties." Pardon me, but has McFall not read Mark 2:15-17? Or Matthew 9:10-13? Or Luke 5:29-32? Not only did Jesus attend large and expensive feasts attended by wealthy publicans, but he explicitly defended this practice as conforming to his particular objective: to preach to the sinners, and not the saved—and as we all know not only from experience, but even from several pericopes in the Gospels, sinners are especially to be found among the rich. And, one should presume, especially among the philosophers, who otherwise are in effect spreading false Gospels. So they should have warranted special attention from Jesus as a major social problem, to whom the Gospel was most in need of preaching—even Paul understood this, so surely Jesus would have as well. Unless Jesus had less understanding and foresight than Paul. Which I believe is eminently feasible.