Analysis of the Carrier-Evans Debate

In April of 2016 I debated Professor Craig Evans, a renowned Evangelical professor of Christianity from Houston Baptist University, on whether Jesus actually existed as a historical person. The debate was held at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, sponsored by Ratio Christi and Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at KSA, the video of the entire debate is available online. Now finally I’ve found enough time to write up a commentary on it.

Overview

Two things were evident by its conclusion. One, Evans did not even bother to read my book in preparation for the debate and was unaware of any of its arguments or evidence. And two, Evans had no logically valid arguments for the historicity of Jesus. Both facts illustrate a pervasive intellectual failure mode plaguing biblical studies.

In any other field, when a peer reviewed study is published challenging an existing consensus, experts in that field read that study and interact with it to ascertain whether it does indeed warrant shifting the consensus position. This is how all progress in any science is made, even in history. A field that ignores peer reviewed challenges to the consensus, and just rejects them without having even read them (much less without finding and publishing any relevant flaw in them) is no longer a legitimate academic field. And a consensus in such a field no longer has any value. Consensus can only have value for a field whose experts actually read and engage with peer reviewed challenges, and present sound reasons to reject those challenges (or, as the case may be, accept those challenges as having some merit).

Likewise in any other field, none of the arguments Evans deployed would be deemed valid or respectable arguments for the conclusion he was defending.

In any other science, even in history, confidence in a conclusion can always be proved warranted by listing abundant evidence for it. Evans listed almost none. And yet being able to list strong evidence for a strong confidence level, as a requirement for maintaining that confidence, is what it means for an academic field to have a standard that warrants heeding its results. This is why climate science and holocaust and evolution denial are so absurd: the evidence for all three is vast and comprehensive, thus warranting a correspondingly vast and comprehensive confidence. The evidence for the historicity of Jesus does not even remotely approach that quantity and strength of evidence. It has, in fact, almost none, by the standards of those same fields. If the holocaust were maintained on the same quality and quantity of evidence as has ever been presented for the historicity of Jesus (by Evans or anyone), that it happened would be more than respectably doubtable. But alas, unlike Jesus, the evidence for the holocaust is, again, vast and comprehensive. And that is the only reason it is not respectably doubtable. Would that we could say the same for Jesus. We cannot.

By exhibiting both failures at the same time, Dr. Evans has illustrated why there can be no respectable consensus in biblical studies on matters too central to part with. Evans could well be fired from his position at HBU were he to concede even so little as that it was possible Jesus didn’t exist. This is what puts him in a bind: there are no strong arguments for historicity; therefore, he has to flail around for any desperate crumb he can rationalize, to at least put on a show of having evidence warranting his excessive confidence. But that he wouldn’t even deign to read the peer reviewed research of his own field before criticizing it, at all much less in a formal academic debate specifically for the purpose, tells us all we need to know about the invalidity of his methods and his position. He is not acting like an academic or a scholar. He is acting like a dogmatist—ignoring research, and inventing excuses, to maintain a status quo his job and reputation depend upon.

This does not bode well for historicity remaining a respectable position. I think Craig Evans has done real harm to the reputation and reliability of biblical studies here. He has revealed to the public that when it comes to anything sufficiently controversial, biblical studies is no longer based on evidence and reason, it is no longer based on reading and interacting with its own peer reviewed literature, it is not based on any valid process. It is instead based on dogmas and assumptions that must be defended merely for reasons of religion, wealth, or social status, and not for actually being true. Accordingly, Evans has given the public strong reasons to warrant no longer having confidence in the consensus of his field on this subject.

The Evans Case in Outline

Evans’s thesis is that “undoubtedly” Jesus existed. In defense of that thesis Evans claims “there is early and substantial evidence.” Although he concedes “there is no substantial evidence” for anyone in antiquity “by modern standards,” the evidence for Jesus is in some sense substantial enough to leave no doubt of his existence.

In actual content, Evans’s case for historicity consisted entirely of these arguments:

  • Argument from Consensus.
  • Argument from Eyewitnesses.
  • Argument from Verisimilitude.
  • Argument from Ancient Historians.
  • Argument from Explaining Origins.

His Argument from Consensus is a fallacy of circular argument. That consensus only has merit if it is based on facts; so if he can’t present facts warranting the consensus conclusion, then all he has demonstrated is that that consensus is unreliable and should be discounted, not heeded. So we are left with his remaining arguments. Do they present any evidence warranting this consensus conclusion?

His Argument from Eyewitnesses is disingenuously phrased as “we have a firm link to eyewitness testimony,” not that we have any eyewitness testimony (he eventually concedes we don’t). He thus is using conjectures as evidence, rather than actual evidence. That is invalid reasoning. You can’t call a conjecture “substantial evidence” of something. It is not even evidence, much less substantial.

His Argument from Verisimilitude was the weirdest and most fallacious of all his arguments that evening. He claimed “we have the early biographies” (the “four New Testament Gospels”), although that they are biographies and not mythic hagiographies begs the question we are debating, and of course many an actual biography in antiquity was written about non-existent people. Fortunately he does not lean on a circular presumption to the contrary. Rather, he argues these Gospels must be telling the truth because they “exhibit extensive and compelling verisimilitude,” which is the same thing as saying Mike Hammer novels are really realistic and get all sorts of cultural and historical facts right, therefore Mike Hammer existed. The fallacy is palpable. Yet Evans leaned on this fallacy repeatedly in our debate, while frequently avoiding ever saying what in the Gospels he regards as having this verisimilitude, despite my repeatedly asking him to name something.

His Argument from Second Century Historians is basically that historians a century after the fact say Jesus existed, therefore he did. The same historians who did not know anything about Jesus except from what Christians told them—Christians who were relying on the Gospels. So his argument is: later historians repeat the fact that Christians a century later said Jesus existed, therefore Jesus existed. This is a non sequitur. No second century historian gives any indication they had any means of knowing whether the man depicted in the Gospels actually existed or not. They were two or more lifetimes removed from the pertinent events, and mention no access to any documents or witnesses or memoirs to guide them. Their testimony therefore has no evidential weight. It’s as fallacious as saying ancient historians assumed Hercules and Moses existed, therefore Hercules and Moses existed.

Finally, his Argument from Explaining Origins is basically that we can’t explain the origins of Christianity without a historical Jesus. This is one of the points where it became very clear Evans had never read my book and was actually surprised and blindsided by the case I made when I took the podium. He clearly had never heard the alternative theory of Christian origins that I call the Doherty Thesis, and which I defend (in its most basic form) as the best alternative available to the one Evans wants to be true. Since it does a really good job of explaining the origins of Christianity, and of explaining many peculiarities of the evidence that historicity does not do as well at explaining, Evans cannot maintain that we can’t explain the origins of Christianity without a historical Jesus.

Whether the Doherty Thesis or the Evans Thesis is a “better” explanation of the origins of Christianity simply hangs on the evidence. So this argument is not an appeal to evidence. It is a claim about what best explains that evidence. Which brings us back full circle to his first argument, his Argument from Consensus: his first and last arguments have no value, if he can’t present “substantial evidence” warranting them. So where is this “substantial evidence”?

  • That historians a century later just repeated what the Gospels said is not evidence that what the Gospels said was true. At all. Much less substantially.
  • That the Gospels, like many myths and legends and other varieties of historical fiction in antiquity, get some incidental cultural and historical details right, is not evidence that Jesus existed. At all. Much less substantially. Because none of those details have anything actually to do with Jesus. (It’s also not true that the Gospels get all those details right; but even if they did, this argument remains a fallacy.)
  • We have no eyewitnesses to the historicity of Jesus, and no author who claims he existed on earth has shown that they had any credible access to eyewitnesses. In fact, none even claim they did—except the authors of the Gospel of John, and their witness is a fabrication (OHJ, pp. 500-05; fabricating witnesses was common in ancient mythography: Alan Cameron has a whole chapter on it in Greek Mythography in the Roman World).
  • Paul, the only source we have who definitely wrote in less than an average lifetime after when Jesus would have lived, never says anyone he mentions as “Brothers of the Lord” or “apostles before” him knew or even saw Jesus before his death. But Paul does say all baptized Christians are brothers of the Lord, and that the apostles all saw Jesus just as he did, in a vision, after his cosmic resurrection—he never mentions them seeing Jesus before that, or in any other way; nor does he ever say any “Brothers of the Lord” were such before baptism.

That’s it. That’s all Evans presents: (1) inconclusive passages in Paul, for which all the evidence of what he actually means is replaced with conjectures that he meant something else; (2) Gospels sometimes getting local knowledge correct that has no unique connection to Jesus; (3) historians a hundred years later who show no indication of having any access to any relevant evidence that would verify historicity; and (4) dogmatically credulous hagiographies no more believable than biographies of Romulus or Hercules. Not a single item of warranting evidence is on this list, much less a substantial amount of it. How, then, can this be the best explanation of the origins of Christianity? And why should we trust the consensus of a field that asserts certainty on a foundation of insubstantial evidence like this?

Of course I addressed all of his arguments in my side of the debate. What follows now will instead be a tighter summary of what I argued at the podium regarding his five arguments (actually four; I won’t mention the Argument from Consensus again, as it hangs entirely on the other four, and thus has no value by itself). If you even need bother. To many, the bankruptcy of his case, and of the entire foundation of the “mainstream consensus” with it, is already obvious even just from the above summary.

Argument from Eyewitnesses

None of the Gospels even claim to have been written by eyewitnesses.

  • One (Luke) outright denies it and conspicuously does not mention having access to any eyewitnesses, only to the previous Gospels, none of which written by eyewitnesses nor citing any (on Luke’s preface actually meaning no more than this, see Not the Impossible Faith, Chapter 7; on the “we” passages being no indication to the contrary, see OHJ, pp. 268 & 360-61).
  • The earliest (Mark) cites no sources at all, and was clearly not himself an eyewitness, and never mentions knowing or speaking to any.
  • And Matthew just copied Mark verbatim and expanded and revised him with more speeches many of which many scholars agree were composed afterward and thus did not come from eyewitnesses (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount is an original composition in Greek written after the Jewish War: OHJ, pp. 465-67). Nor would an eyewitness just copy verbatim the book of a non-witness and pass it off as their own testimony. But Matthew never says he was an eyewitness anyway, and like Mark never mentions ever having known or spoken to any. And much of what Matthew adds to Mark is sufficiently ridiculous as to rule out his having or using eyewitness sources at all (like magical stars: 2:9-11; virgin births: 1:18-25; zombie hordes: 27:52-53; flying monsters from outer space: 28:1-8; etc.).
  • John’s authors (plural) alone claim to have used some previous written Gospel written by (they claim) an eyewitness (whom they do not name in the present text, although enough clues remain to entail they meant Lazarus), a person never before heard of, whom the Gospel of John suddenly inserts everywhere into the story, and for whom we have ample evidence of his invention (OHJ, pp. 500-05).

So we have no link to eyewitnesses in these documents. At all. Much less a “firm” one. That any of the content of the Gospels derives in any way from eyewitnesses is a conjecture, not anything we have any actual evidence of. And conjectures are not evidence. At all. Much less “substantial” evidence. (See OHJ, Chs. 7 and 10.) Evans thus resorts to his “Argument from Verisimilitude” to try and get the Gospel testament to the historicity of Jesus to be based somehow on eyewitnesses. That argument is absurd, as I’ve already noted. But as it is a separate argument, I’ll get to it next.

All else Evans cites is the fact that we have two letters of Paul that “mention” some “original disciples of Jesus” and “James, the brother of Jesus.” Though in fact neither statement is in any letter of Paul. Paul never calls anyone “the brother of Jesus,” only “brothers of the Lord,” while also saying that all baptized Christians were Brothers of the Lord (Romans 8:15 and 8:29; Galatians 4:5), leaving uncertain what then he means when he calls someone a Brother of the Lord (OHJ, pp. 582-92). And Paul never calls anyone a disciple. Paul has no knowledge of disciples. He only knows of apostles like himself. And so far as Paul ever appears to know, apostles were people who had visions of Jesus, not who sat at his feet (1 Corinthians 9:1; Galatians 1:11-17). Certainly Paul never mentions any such thing—not even, most conspicuously, in his account of Jesus’s inauguration of the Lord’s Supper, which Paul claims to know of by revelation, not testimony, and in which no mention is ever made of anyone being present (OHJ, pp. 557-63).

So again, to assume that Paul gives us even a link to eyewitness testimony, much less a “firm” link, is to mistake conjecture for evidence. Evans conjectures that maybe James and Cephas knew Jesus in an earthly life. Paul never says they did. They never say they did. So there is no evidence they did, from them or Paul. Or from anyone who shows any indication of being in a position even to know whether they did (none of the Gospels show any knowledge of having access to these brethren and apostles mentioned in Paul, or to what they said about anything). Which means, there simply is no evidence these persons mentioned by Paul knew Jesus in life. One has to conjecture it. And conjectures are not evidence. At all. Much less “substantial” evidence.

Argument from Verisimilitude

The Gospels, Evans says, correctly enough describe the geography and customs of first century Judea that archaeologists can rely on them and have dug up what the Gospels predict will be there. His presentation of this I found to be disturbingly disingenuous.

It isn’t true, to begin with, that any archaeological site has ever been found on evidence in the Gospels. Unlike, for example, Troy, which was found on evidence in the Iliad. Yet Evans would not then claim the Iliad has verisimilitude, therefore Hector and Achilles existed. So why does he think this argument makes any sense in any other context?

Yet we don’t even have that for the Gospels. The closest any example comes to a case like Troy would be discovering that the Pool of Bethesda actually did have five porticoes, as reported in John 5:2 (not an example Evans cites, possibly because John is widely acknowledged to be the least historically reliable of the Gospels). But John 5:2 was not used to find that pool. There are numerous pools in Jerusalem. One had five porticoes. And yet the accuracy of John on this is moot (OHJ, p. 506, esp. n. 241). It’s entirely possible John correctly describes the location of the pool, that it was indeed five porticoed, was named as he said, was a healing site, and near the sheep gate (the location of which archaeology has not identified). But this information would have been available in reference books and histories of Judea, and in other stories and legends of events there, and known to countless persons who had lived there in later decades (like Josephus, for example). That the authors of John knew the layout of Jerusalem therefore tells us nothing about whether they had any eyewitness information pertaining to Jesus, or any historical information about Jesus at all.

Already the non sequitur is obvious. But it’s worse, because there is little else in the Gospels that is so specific. And indeed much that is erroneous.

Mark doesn’t seem to have a good grasp of the local geography or customs. Matthew knew these better and repairs Mark’s mistakes, but not from being a better witness to Jesus, but just being a more informed Jew. Hence correcting these errors and getting them right has no connection to having any special knowledge of Jesus. It just means an author knew the Holy Land and Jewish laws and customs better. Luke, meanwhile, gets his details of the region from the Jewish historian Josephus (and probably, in the same way, other historians now lost, for other regions discussed in Acts). And John has been edited out of order so hopelessly it’s actually of little use geographically (see OHJ, Chapter 10.7), and he says nothing about customs that wasn’t common knowledge among Jews. So there really isn’t anything remarkable about these books using common knowledge and reference books to set their scenes. All historical fiction and a great deal of mythology did that. Even Homer knew where Troy was.

Yet even the most informed author, Matthew, isn’t a paragon of accuracy. For example, it’s well known that the Pharisees did not forbid healing on the Sabbath, yet they are depicted as arguing this with Jesus repeatedly, when the arguments put in the mouth of Jesus are actually the same Rabbinical arguments used by the actual Pharisees themselves (e.g., see Geza Vermes’ discussion in The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, pp. 46-47). Similarly, none of the Gospels presents a trial sequence that is at all plausible within the known laws and customs of the time (Proving History, p. 154). The clearing of the temple scene is not at all plausible given the known facts of the temple layout and its police force (OHJ, pp. 431-32). The Barabbas narrative invents non-existent Roman customs to create an ahistorical Jewish symbolism (OHJ, pp. 402-08). Matthew ridiculously has Jesus ride into town on an adult and a baby donkey simultaneously (OHJ, pp. 459-60). The disciples abandon their jobs and property and families, and pick up and follow and completely devote themselves to Jesus after he, a complete stranger and a pauper, just walks up to them and utters a few sentences. And so on (cf. OHJ, pp. 435-36). Verisimilitude is not actually so prominent a feature of the Gospels.

But even what little verisimilitude the Gospels have is moot. To get Jewish culture and geography right only requires being Jewish or knowing or reading any informed Jew, especially someone who grew up in that time and place, or wrote about it—like Josephus, who did both.

For Evans to use such an argument is thus so fallacious that it strains against honesty. He gives the impression that things confirming the acts and presence and movements and teachings of Jesus have been excavated. But that’s not true. Nothing connected to Jesus has ever been excavated. Evans gave no clear examples of anything he meant, so I had to keep pressing him to throughout the debate. Eventually he said something to the effect that Nazareth has been excavated. But no Gospel told us where to find Nazareth. It’s been a known site for thousands of years. And that a Nazareth existed does not say anything whatever about whether our Jesus lived there. “We’ve excavated Nazareth, therefore Jesus existed,” is simply a non sequitur. It should actually be embarrassing that anyone calling themselves a historian would even deign to think this was an argument worth making.

Argument from Ancient Historians

Evans doesn’t present any evidence that any second century writers had any access to any information that could corroborate the Christian Gospels’ claim that Jesus walked the earth. They were simply repeating and responding to what those Christians were then claiming. Therefore, they afford no evidence that what second century Christians were claiming was true. “No” evidence is the exact opposite of “substantial” evidence. (See OHJ Chs. 7 and 8.)

Evans spends most of his time here on Josephus, and the two pertinent passages there. This hardly requires further response. I thoroughly refute both passages’ authenticity, in agreement with many experts, in OHJ (pp. 332-42). The paragraph about Jesus is wholly ridiculous (not a single line in it makes any sense as anything Josephus would ever say, but is exactly what a Christian interpolator would say), wholly out of character for Josephus (unlike any other digression in the whole of his works; and not at all like how he usually describes Jewish sects in his histories), and wholly out of context (in a list of disasters instigating the Jews to war, immediately after which Josephus describes “another” disaster befalling the Jews, when no disaster, certainly none befalling “the Jews,” has been described in this paragraph about Jesus).

There is no evidence Josephus ever wrote anything here about Christians at all, as confirmed by the Christian scholar Origen who used the works of Josephus and cited everything in it he could find in support of Christian historical claims, yet knew nothing of any such passage as this. Even Josephus himself knew nothing of this passage, despite (we’re to believe) his having written it, as he makes no mention of it in the other passage where Josephus describes the execution of James the brother of Jesus “who was called Christ.” If even Josephus didn’t know he wrote more about Christ and Christians, we really should stop pretending he did. Christian apologists really need to give up on this. It carries no weight as evidence.

That leaves that other passage where Josephus inexplicably adds that a certain James executed was the brother of Jesus “called Christ,” without explaining to his Gentile readers what a Christ was, why he was so-called, or what this had to do with his account of this James being executed. Those two words were certainly not written by Josephus. I demonstrated that extensively in the Journal of Early Christian Studies. Evans incorrectly says Josephus mentions Jesus being called the Christ “to explain” why Ananus killed James and was deposed for it. But that’s not at all in the passage. At no point does the passage ever connect his brother being called Christ with anything that happens in the account. Really. Josephus does not say anything about what this had to do with James being executed (or with what it had to do with the rest of the Jewish elite being outraged by his execution…evidently the Jewish elite loved Christians and were appalled that anyone would kill them…oh wait…).

These references are so compromised and so thoroughly suspect that they are not even usable as evidence. At all. Much less as “substantial” evidence. The other passages from the second century have no value either, as they just repeat what Christians and their Gospels said. So why is Evans, or anyone, still clinging to any of this? If they are concluding for historicity based on these things, the reliability of their judgment is seriously in question.

Argument from Explaining Origins

Evans never developed his Argument from Explaining Origins. I rebutted the claim, in both OHJ and the debate, by exhibiting an alternative explanation that fits both the evidence, context, and precedents. Evans never responded.

Rebuttals to My Arguments

Because Evans was unprepared for my arguments and evidence, not having read my book, he had no adequate response ready to my opening statement and couldn’t answer much of what I argued, nor was he able to answer my counter-rebuttals (apart from just unevidenced gainsaying, like repeatedly insisting something is “obvious” without ever saying why).

  • Did Jesus Have a Human Family?

In rebuttals Evans brought up the “born of a mother” passage in Galatians and the “descended from David” passage in Romans as evidence for historicity; but the latter doesn’t exist (the word “descended” isn’t in the text) and the former is an allegory for world order (as Paul explicitly says, the “mothers” he is talking about in his argument in Galatians 4 are not people but worlds: Galatians 4:24). In both cases Paul does not use the word he uses for human birth, but the word he uses for divine manufacture (“was created/made”), the same word he uses of God making Adam and our future resurrection bodies (1 Corinthians 15:37 and 15:45), neither of which are “born” to actual human mothers (or fathers).

Later Christians knew this and tried to change the words to what they needed to be there (and what Evans needs to be there), altering them both to Paul’s word for “born” rather than “made,” but we caught them at it, and those doctored variants are excluded from the received text. Experts now know what Paul actually originally wrote in both passages was “made.” So we can’t tell if Paul means God manufactured Jesus a body out of David’s semen, or if he was born to some human father descended from David; nor can we tell if Paul thought Jesus was born of a real mother or only an allegorical one. So there is no usable evidence here. At all. Certainly not substantial evidence.

Paul nevertheless does say Jesus was made from the flesh of David (literally out of his semen, as everyone knew prophecy literally said and thus required), and thus wore a human, Jewish body when he was given flesh to wear after descending from heaven (as Paul says in Philippians 2). But that tells us nothing about where he wore that body—on earth or in space? Was Jesus an incarnate archangel on earth, or was he like his neighbor Osiris, who actually wore (and died in) his human body in outer space just below the moon, and only in the public myths disguising that cosmic truth does he wear it on earth? (OHJ, pp. 114-24) The earliest text we can reconstruct of the Ascension of Isaiah, another Christian Gospel composed around the same time as the canonical Gospels were, has Jesus doing the latter, not the former. So which is it? We can’t tell from anything in Paul. So we don’t have any evidence for historicity here, either. No more for Jesus than we do for Osiris. (See OHJ, Ch. 11.9-10.)

  • Did Jesus Have Disciples?

Evans says Paul wrote that Jesus had “twelve disciples” in 1 Corinthians 15:5. That’s false. The word disciple does not exist there. Nor anywhere in Paul’s letters. These were the first apostles (as Paul says in Galatians 1:17). Who, like Paul, “saw Jesus” after his death. Conspicuously no mention is made of them ever seeing Jesus before he died. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 omits any ministry for Jesus, never mentions anyone having met or seen him in life, much less being hand-picked by him in life, and only says we know of his death and burial from scripture, while the first time Paul mentions anyone knowing anything about Jesus from witnessing it, he only mentions the “visions” of a celestial Jesus that came after his prophesied death. Not before. This is so peculiar that it is actually evidence against historicity. Not for it. (See OHJ, Ch. 11.4.)

  • Did Jesus Have a Last Supper with His Disciples?

Evans claims Paul recites what Jesus said at “the last supper.” But in fact Paul never calls it a last supper, mentions no one being present, and says he knew of those words because he learned of them from a revelation from Jesus, not from any witness (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul never mentions there being any witness. He also never mentions a betrayal in connection with this, contrary to Evans’s conjecture; in fact, Paul only references Jesus being delivered up for death—by God, as Paul elsewhere says (OHJ, pp. 560-61). And that this occurred during a specific night is already a part of the alternative hypothesis, since the question is not whether it was believed to have occurred at a specific time, but where—on earth or in the heavens. Because Paul makes no mention of where it occurred. So again, we can find no evidence in this passage supporting the historicity hypothesis over the alternative. In the latter these events took place in a celestial realm and were known, as in Paul’s case, only through visions. There is no evidence here that Paul is saying anything else. (See OHJ, Ch. 11.7.)

  • Why Were Paul and All His Congregations Uninterested in Any Facts about Jesus’s Life?

The silences in Paul’s letters are really weird and hard to explain in any believable way. Besides the ones I list and discuss in OHJ, Chapter 11.2, Earl Doherty has compiled an even larger list (top 20, plus more in Romans, Corinthians, Galatians and Philippians, and Thessalonians). In OHJ I quote numerous experts agreeing this is weird and hard to explain. Evans had no response to this beyond the standard implausible conjecture that Paul was wholly uninterested in anything to do with Jesus’s life. Which is not only inherently unbelievable and not in evidence (Paul never says such a thing or anything indicative of it), but also doesn’t explain why no one else he wrote to or against was at all interested in such facts, either, since none ever presented him with any evidence or argument from them that ever required his response. Conjecture is not evidence. The silences remain simply weird—and better explained by the fact that there were no pertinent facts of Jesus’s life to discuss, and no witnesses to cite or discuss them.

  • Does Paul Believing Jesus Was Crucified Make Him Historical?

Did Attis worshippers believing Attis was castrated make Attis historical? Did any Romans believing Romulus murdered his brother and was later murdered by the Roman Senate make Romulus historical? Did Greeks believing Hercules was shamed by being forced to clean horse stables and later killed by poison make Hercules historical? Did Jews believing Moses committed murder in Egypt then wrote the Pentateuch make Moses historical? Such questions are silly. They do not constitute a respectable academic argument. Many religions hanged on embarrassing and shameful claims, like Romulus’s fratricide or Attis’s castration. That is not evidence they existed. At all. Much less “substantially.” Jesus’s crucifixion, whether by Romans or Satan, was equally shocking and counter-intuitive, just like Romulus’s fratricide or Attis’s castration (OHJ, pp. 610-16). Yet it was also brilliantly meaningful and an ideal shibboleth to build a counter-cultural sect on; it even borrowed on a concept of suffering and sacrificial saviors that was fashionable at the time (OHJ, pp. 143-45, 153-73, 209-14). That is true whether Jesus existed or not. Therefore this does not provide us with evidence he existed. At all. Much less “substantially.”

  • Were There Dying & Rising Gods Similar Enough to Jesus?

Evans avoids discussing almost any of the examples I actually gave. He rebutted the claim that Attis was similar. But I never cited Attis. That’s a classic straw man fallacy, rather shameful to see happen in a formal academic debate. He of all people should know better. Of course my book contains full and direct documentation for many other gods as being relevantly similar (no one claims they are identical; that’s not a relevant point: OHJ, p. 97, n. 72). He addressed none of the examples I actually gave—except Osiris. But he also did not address any of my evidence for any the actual examples I gave, not even the evidence I document in my book for Osiris. (See OHJ, pp. 45-47, 56-58, 168-73.) This was actually quite disrespectful. And it shows very clearly that the consensus on this matter is based on refusing to examine peer reviewed evidence and refusing to give any valid reason to reject it. Which invalidates that consensus. As it is not based on any sound or respectable method; it is based, instead, on the tacit rejection of sound or respectable methods. Evans revealed in this debate that he actually doesn’t know the evidence for the resurrection theology and mythology of Osiris. Like a Creationist debating evolution who doesn’t actually know the evidence for it.

I should also mention that it is also not relevant to argue, as Evans did, that Jesus was built out of Jewish concepts of resurrection rather than pagan. Syncretism is about combining both, not choosing one over the other. If you don’t know that, if you don’t know what syncretism is or how it works, you are not competent to debate the matter. When many Jews borrowed resurrection, apocalypticism, a flaming hell, and a divine enemy of God as concepts all from the pagan Zoroastrians who occupied their lands, they Judaized those concepts, making their own versions of them that were peculiarly Jewish and built on Jewish ideas. The result was a combination of pagan and Jewish elements. That’s how syncretism works. Similarly Osiris is an Egyptian syncretism of the dying and rising savior; Zalmoxis is a Thracian syncretism of the dying and rising savior; Ishtar is a Mesopotamian syncretism of the dying and rising savior; and so on. They are all different from each other in precisely the ways they have been rebuilt out of ideas from both the conquering and the native cultures. As for them, so for Jesus.

And finally, Evans never rebutted the actual argument I made from this fact. That there were numerous suffering saviors, many of them dying and rising gods like Jesus, complete with sin-cleansing initiatory baptisms and sacred communal meals partaken by a fictive brotherhood of believers (OHJ, pp. 96-108), and that that was a fad of the time, spreading into every other local culture under the Empire, from Thrace to Syria to Egypt, puts Christianity squarely in the context of a known and documented phenomenon. Christianity was simply the Jewish turn at this. Yet in no other case were any of those other suffering saviors historical persons. All for whom we have details of their cult theology underwent their real ordeal in some supernatural realm; yet all were depicted as doing so in earth history in public myths intended to symbolize the moral or cosmic truths of the faith. Osiris is the clearest example of this: as Plutarch says (and Evans himself cited and relied on Plutarch’s account of Osiris), the public myths put Osiris in earth history but they were disguising behind allegory and parable the truth, which was that his death and resurrection occurs in outer space, not on earth, an earth on which in actual fact he never lived. And there were Christians who at one point were saying the same thing of Jesus (OHJ, pp. 36-48, 317-22, 350-53). So, evidence and precedent leave us with a strong warranted suspicion that Jesus may have begun life just like Osiris did, and the other suffering savior gods of the same fashionable trend did.

Evans never even responded to that argument.

Conclusion

In this commentary I didn’t address a number of other claims Evans made throughout his presentations that are dubious but not relevant. Examples include his claim that Q existed and was composed in the 30’s A.D, two facts for which there is no actual evidence. This is just another conjecture being substituted for evidence. Or that the evidence for the historicity of Roman emperors is “similar” to the evidence for Jesus, which is both false and a non sequitur. The evidence for the emperors Evans mentions is vastly greater than for Jesus and not at all as he mischaracterizes; nor do emperors belong in the same reference class as mythologized savior deities, so the prior probability of their historicity is not comparable either.

When it came to the pertinent elements of the debate, Evans presented nothing that even counted as evidence for historicity, much less “substantial” evidence, except for the passages in Paul mentioning “brothers of the Lord” (and eventually in rebuttals, Paul’s oblique references to Jesus having maybe a mother and a father). I agreed in the debate, and have always said, this is the only evidence for historicity there is. It is too weak, however, to salvage historicity (as noted above; and of course in detail see OHJ, chapter 11.9-10). But it at least looks almost like evidence. But other than that, the Gospels are unbelievable and unsourced and can’t be connected to any witness testimony (beyond conjecturing it). All the writers outside the Bible show no sign of being aware of any evidence for historicity other than the Gospels. And when we then eliminate forged evidence, nothing else remains. At all. Meanwhile, Paul’s letters look very strange if Jesus was a recent charismatic historical figure at whose feet some apostles sat. Whereas they look not at all strange if Paul only in fact knew of Jesus as a revelatory being, and the Jesus walking Galilee was invented later. As had happened to many a savior deity before him, from Dionysus to Osiris; and likewise the invention of many a heroic founder, from Moses to Romulus (or even, later, John Frum, Tom Navy, and Ned Ludd: OHJ, pp. 8-11, 159-64, 214-22).

Evans rebutted almost none of my arguments—for this alternative explanation of the origins of Christianity, or for doubting historicity generally. And he even conceded some of them—for example, he admitted on cross examination that all baptized Christians were considered as and could be called “brothers of the Lord.” When asked how then he knows Paul meant anything but that in his letters, Evans just kept saying “it’s obvious.” Since it’s not, and he couldn’t give any reason to think it was, I have to conclude he just had no actual reasons. “It just has to be.” For some reason. In a similar fashion to this, in pretty much every case Evans clearly had no idea how to answer anything I said. Having not read my book, apparently, he was unprepared for all of it. He seemed to think, also, that I was going to argue against things like the authenticity of Paul’s letters or the early existence of Nazareth, whereas if he had read my book, he would have well known I reject both arguments, and in no uncertain terms.

Not taking peer reviewed publications on the subject seriously, not even reading them before formally debating them at a university, condemns not only the reliability of Evans’ judgment as a scholar, but the whole of the consensus on this subject in biblical studies. For that, too, is based on the same failure to even engage with their own peer reviewed literature (so far as I know, no one with a Ph.D. in the field who has orally debated or published in print any defense of historicity has bothered to read my book; Kenneth Waters didn’t; and while James McGrath claims to have, he chose only to lie about its contents) and the same reliance on wholly fallacious and often outright absurd arguments (from “second century historians repeated what the Gospels said, thereby proving what the Gospels said was true” to “we excavated Nazareth, therefore Jesus existed”). Even where they actually should be focusing the debate (on the ostensible references to family in Paul), no one I have engaged on this in the field has shown significant familiarity with the relevant scholarship or even context and language of the passages in question—like the grammatical analysis of Trudinger, which proved the James in Galatians 1 called a brother of the Lord was specifically being identified by Paul there as not even an apostle (OHJ, pp. 588-91).

It’s as if the experts forming this ever-cited consensus can’t even be bothered to actually get up to speed on the facts and scholarship before taking a position on it. Rather, they just have to defend the bulwarks against an interloper whose new theory will get them in trouble, losing them their jobs, their prestige, their audience, or their faith. And they’ll do this, apparently, without having to be familiar with any of the pertinent peer reviewed literature, even the literature they insist on rebutting.

5 comments

  1. Question Submitted: What about Corbo & Saller’s The House of St. Peter at Capharnaum published in 1969? Was the house of Peter discovered?

    Answer: No. That claim has been refuted repeatedly in the peer reviewed literature:

    As Mark Chancey says in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee, p. 105, “this thesis is simply undemonstrable.” He cites numerous references on that point. Those and others include:

    James Strange, “Review: The Capernaum and Herodium Publications,” BASOR 226 (1977): 68-69 and “Review: The Capernaum and Herodium Publications, Part 2” BASOR 233 (1979): 63-69.

    Stanislao Loffreda, Recovering Capharnaum (Edizioni Custodia Terra Santa 1984).

    Joan Taylor, “Capernaum and its ‘Jewish-Christians’: A Re-examination of the Franciscan Excavations” Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 9 (1990): 7-28.

    Joan Taylor, Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins (Oxford 1993): 268-94.

    Sean Freyne, “A Galilean Messiah?” Studia Theologica 55 (2001), 198–218.

    Summary: No evidence connects the room found with even Christians in the first century, much less Peter.

    Reply
  2. Good analysis of the debate. I was wondering about the issue concerning which James was being referred to in Galatians 1 and 2. Around the 1:29 timestamp Evans disputes your interpretation by claiming that James the son of Zebedee had already been martyred etc. I wondered what your response is to this since the clock ran out and you didn’t have a chance to keep going on that line of argumentation. Cheers.

    Reply
    1. Acts is not reliable (it’s mostly making stuff up when it comes to specifically Christian history: see ch. 9 of OHJ).

      The James “the brother of the Lord” encounter in Gal. 1 occurs in the 30s A.D. according to Paul, well before the year 44 execution Acts suggests for the other James. Paul’s grammar entails that that James (the one in Gal. 1) was not an Apostle (an argument Evans never responded to), and thus certainly not the same James that’s in Gal. 2 (nor the son of Zebedee). Then fourteen years later (so, around 50 A.D.) Paul says he met “the pillars” James, John, and Peter (Cephas), the same three top Apostles the Gospels set as the top three Apostles (hence, James the brother of John, hence the sons of Zebedee). Paul never mentions anyone ever being killed, and almost certainly no such thing ever happened, until maybe after Galatians was written, but even 1 Clement never heard of a martyrdom of any James (he only knows of Peter and Paul).

      Acts keeps having a James running the church after that, yet still not the brother of Jesus (as Acts distinguishes the brothers of Jesus from every James named among the Apostles). It sounds like the same James, so Acts is working over an earlier story and the author is moving things around and getting confused. So just as Acts confuses the chronology of Judas and Theudas (wrong decades, wrong order), and Paul’s own chronology (erasing his three years in Arabia; having him start in Judea even though Paul says he had never been there until three years after his conversion; getting the years of his visits to Jerusalem wrong; etc.), Acts confuses which James was killed when. Paul is more reliable, because he is actually a witness. The author of Acts gets so much wrong and isn’t a witness. So we can decide who to believe.

      In Acts, Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem occurs before the execution of James “the brother of John” (Acts 11:29-30, Paul goes to Jerusalem, by revelation, with Barnabas, to bring charity to the poor, all just as Paul says in Galatians; then “about that time” is the murder of James and jailing of Peter, all ridiculous narratives that aren’t believable, but regardless, Acts says only then Paul returns from Jerusalem: Acts 12:25). So Acts is saying the encounter that Paul dates to 50 occurred in 44 (Acts uses Gal. 2:1-2, 10 to write Acts 11:28-30), and that James the son of Zebedee died during that very visit of Paul. Which would agree with Paul’s narrative insofar as James was alive at least for some of Paul’s visit (though Paul assumes James was still alive a few more years: Gal. 2:12); but wrong as to what year that was.

      Even if Acts isn’t just making it all up (which it tends to do elsewhere so we hardly need any other hypothesis), the author may have confused which Herod Agrippa killed James the son of Zebedee, and inserted that event into the wrong point in history (or did this on purpose because that Agrippa was a better villain with a more wrathful death, and Acts wanted to credit that death as God’s revenge for killing James; the later Agrippa never came to any spectacular end that would serve such a narrative), just as Acts puts Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem six years too early. (Some scholars have suggested “James” and “John” got inverted in the text, and that John was executed, which would explain why Acts doesn’t explain why suddenly there is still a James leading the church without explanation or ceremony immediately after he was just killed: 12:17ff.) Acts then invents a third visit to Jerusalem (Acts 15), even though Paul says all that happened on his second visit.

      In other words, chronology in Acts is fucked. So you can’t rely on arguments from its chronology. If it can’t even get right when Paul was in Jerusalem, it can’t be trusted to get right when James died.

      Reply
  3. Johan Rönnblom August 21, 2016, 10:02 am

    Just saw the debate, this was the best defence of the mythicist hypothesis that I have seen. Very good focus on the strong arguments and on countering the major objections you could be expected to encounter (by Evans, but more importantly by the audience).

    One little note: Evans mentions his upcoming book on the ‘Synoptic problem’, I find it interesting that this ‘problem’ simply disappears if we assume the Gospels were not intended to be read as literal truth.

    Reply
    1. It doesn’t disappear, actually, because even as fiction, the “problem” (i.e. question) remains as to the relationship between the texts and how the authors composed them. “Was Luke aware of Matthew? Is Luke’s fiction a response to Matthew’s?” are, for example, really important and interesting questions, for understanding what these authors were attempting to accomplish, and how they derived and manipulated their material. Just as “Was there an earlier version of this fictional story that’s lost but survives inside Luke and Matthew and explains their shared material? Is any of that same lost text also in Mark?” likewise remain askable. Etc.

      Reply

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