Here continues my series on reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
- Is Paul’s Silence Even Harder to Explain?
- Why Wouldn’t Mark Sneak Paul into the Twelve?
- Does Hebrews Argue Even More Against Historicity?
- The Last Three Sections So Far
Is Paul’s Silence Even Harder to Explain?
In part 6 Covington gives a good summary of why this is a stronger argument than historicists insist. As Covington puts it:
When you compare the 200 silent passages [documented by Earl Doherty] with the handful of debatable passages that might refer to a historical Jesus (or just as easily might not) and the lone reference to James the brother of the Lord (which can be plausibly explained by mythicism) things begin to look pretty bad for the historicists. Paul mentions Jesus again and again in his letters, mentions his crucifixion and resurrection multiple times, but never says much of anything else about him.
He goes on, and concludes “the argument from silence here is extremely compelling.” As I noted in my last commentary, I was very over-generous to historicity in my probability estimates in OHJ. I actually think historicists may have gaslighted me on this one. In OHJ I just took their excuses as being as credible as not, and so a wash. Because even many non-believing experts insist upon them so unabashedly and often, acting all shocked and nonplussed that anyone would balk. But as Covington explains, those excuses are really not that credible.
In light of that, Covington’s own estimate is 10:1 against historicity, instead of my merely 2:1. I think he might be closer to being right. Compare his calculation to my comment in OHJ, pp. 518-19, n. 13. To illustrate, for my result of 2:1, the average probability of a historicity-confirming comment in each of the sixty chapters of Paul can’t be much more than 1% (or 1 out of every 100 chapters, so less even than 1 out of 60), and Covington is saying that’s way too low to be believed. His estimate, of 10:1, requires that probability to be around 3.8%. At 5% (the estimate I used for illustration in the book), we end up with a factor of almost 22:1 against historicity.
Think about that.
I can also add to Covington’s closing paragraph expressing distrust of the argument “from high context” against this conclusion. That argument is not only bogus (see my comments, and the critiques of Tim Widowfield, in my Review of Casey), but it is actually refuted by Gerd Lüdemann, whom I quoted to exactly that effect in OHJ (p. 520), “In the letter to the Romans, which cannot presuppose the apostle’s missionary preaching, and in which he attempts to summarize its main points, we find not a single direct citation of Jesus’ teaching.”
The reason Romans cannot be, in any relevant way, using high context discourse (discourse that presupposes the readers have already been fully briefed) is because Paul is there writing to people he has never communicated with before, even some of whom have not yet heard the gospel (Rom. 1:15). And accordingly, much of the text from chapter one on is an elaborate summary of the gospel and how it works salvation, refuting the notion that Paul would not repeat basic things already understood—for Romans is specifically about many of those basic things! (And, I would add, our Romans appears to be an interwoven stitch of at least three separate letters [OHJ, p. 511, n. 4], such that the original letter beginning with Rom. 1 may have contained a lot of really fundamental material that has been cut from our copy.)
So this factor may need to go from 2:1 to 10:1 or even 20:1 against historicity. Certainly something to ponder.
Why Wouldn’t Mark Sneak Paul into the Twelve?
As Covington poses the question in part 7, “Why didn’t Mark include Paul as one of the twelve disciples in his book?” He almost immediately answers his own question, of course, that “that’d be a dead giveaway at what he was doing, since we know through Paul’s letters that he never met Jesus in person.” Since Paul refers to the twelve as something he wasn’t a part of (1 Cor. 15:5-8), and clearly and even insistently says he wasn’t in the original group (Gal. 1), and Mark is writing for the Pauline sect (who would surely know Paul’s letters if anyone would), it would make no sense at all for Mark to sneak Paul into his symbolic commentary on the original twelve. Not only because it would be for that very reason jarring and contradictory, but also because it would be directly contrary to Mark’s entire evangelical purpose in narrating the original followers of Jesus: the disciples are nitwits who never understood the gospel and were too fickle and foolish to follow as leaders. He is thus using his narratives of them to comment on the anti-Pauline sect. Paul doesn’t belong there, even fictionally.
Covington is aware of the problem, noting “the chances are small that [Mark] would’ve wanted to portray Paul as one of the cowardly, half-witted disciples like the others were portrayed,” although he thinks maybe Mark wasn’t wholly hostile to the original disciples, since “Mark also has Jesus designate Peter as ‘The Rock’” and whatnot. But it’s crucial for Mark’s message that the disciples not be completely disgraced, because Paul admitted they founded the church (and were the ‘pillars’, essentially the rock, on which it was founded) and had to be deferred to (Gal. 1-2), so the disciples had to be depicted as losers, but not wholly lost (hence Mark 16:7). Paul also knew and said the founder of the church was named ‘Rock’ (Cephas: 1 Cor. 15:5; Gal. 1:18, 2:9), so an etiological myth explaining that is what we would expect in Mark (however allegorically he intended it). Mark also knew Paul thought Peter was a weasel (Gal. 2:11). So we should expect Mark to depict him as such (Mark 14:30-72 passim).
By contrast, inserting Paul in a setting he was never in would actually go against Mark’s deployment of a quasi-accurate historical setting for his fiction. For Paul was never in Judea, and was unknown in person there (and was affiliated with Damascus, not Galilee), until years after he converted, which was in turn years after Peter launched the church (Gal. 1:18-2:1). If you want to write a plausible veneer for your secret messages (Mark 4:10-11), you don’t insert a pink gorilla in the middle of it, least of all one that wholly spoils the message. That would be like having Herod the Great show up in Mark 15 to personally berate Pontius Pilate for crucifying the messiah.
Consequently, I can’t see any appreciable probability that Mark would have inserted Paul into his narrative. Much less the 50% chance Covington declares. He subsequently came to agree (see part 9), though for different reasons than I adduce here (although nevertheless also reasons worth considering).
Does Hebrews Argue Even More Against Historicity?
In part 8, Covington says the content of Hebrews is “one of the most compelling arguments for mythicism.” I agree it is compelling. But I wasn’t sure it was that conclusive when I wrote OHJ, owing to its plausible vagueness. So I gave all the epistolary gospels collectively a 5:2 against historicity, or 5:3 a fortiori (p. 594). But Covington makes a good argument that, again, I was being way too generous to historicity. Observe the elegance of his argument:
The author of Hebrews believes that there are copies of things in heaven mirroring the things on earth … and that the animal sacrifices [in the Jerusalem temple] are a copy or shadow of Jesus’ sacrifice … Think about the Hebrews author’s logic:
1. There are imperfect earthly copies of heavenly things.
2. Animal sacrifices are an imperfect copy of Jesus’ sacrifice,
Therefore: Jesus’ sacrifice was a heavenly sacrifice.
This is essentially what I myself argue, but I did not conceptualize it so clearly. It evokes a powerful syllogism:
- P1. Hebrews 9-10 says the imperfect copies of any x are on earth and the perfect copies of x are not on earth.
- P2. The sacrifice of Jesus is the perfect copy of x.
- C1. Therefore, Hebrews 9-10 says the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth.
- P3. It is improbable that C1 [the author of Hebrews would say the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth], when B [the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth], but probable that C1 [the author of Hebrews would say the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth], when ~B [the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth].
- P4. If it is improbable that C1 when B, and probable that C1 when ~B, then, when C1, ceteris paribus, ~B is more probable than B.
- C2. Therefore, equiter paribus, “the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth” is more probable than “the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth.”
In Bayesian terms, if C1 is twice as likely when ~B than when B, then this one fact of Hebrews alone entails a factor of 2:1 against historicity. And that’s being generous already, since that seems surely more than twice as likely. For it does not seem likely at all that the author of Hebrews would use an argument he knew to be refuted by a well-established fact (that the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth, just like the animals, and in fact in almost the same location), nor at all likely that the author of Hebrews would not know of that fact, if it were a fact. It is therefore not at all likely that it was a fact. In other words, it is not at all likely that Jesus died on earth. (This can be added to the arguments from Hebrews I already make in OHJ, ch. 11 § 5.)
Covington goes on to shore up and reinforce the point. I am again persuaded to agree. Unless someone can argue me out of it (please try!), I have to concur C1 is almost certainly true (as it follows from P1 and P2, neither of which can plausibly be denied), and C1 is surely more than twice as likely if Jesus didn’t exist than if he did. Unless one posits a bizarre theory in which Jesus was believed to have been raptured into heaven before his death to be killed there, a notion requiring so many ad hoc suppositions just to stand, that it would suffer an intolerably low prior probability. No, I think we are left with a stronger than 5:3 factor against historicity from this alone, even a fortiori. And even more so when combined with the other gospels in Paul and Colossians.
I should probably double that category factor from 5:3 to 10:3 a fortiori, and make it 5:1 a judicatiori (from doubling my 5:2 to 10:2). Because this isn’t the only passage in Hebrews that is less probable on historicity than myth, so if even just this single passage compels a 2:1 factor, we should let it do so, all on its own.
The Last Three Sections So Far
Covington’s parts 9, 10, and 11 are more like a summary, recap, or re-evaluation of his previous material. Part 10 is not really about OHJ but advances an unusual argument from Enoch that I don’t use in OHJ but which offers an interesting support to it (it would essentially expand my Element 41), although with a few too many speculations I think. But part 9 contains further thoughts on the preceding sections (I have simply newly inserted this fact and my very brief remarks on it in or at the end of my original commentaries on those preceding sections). And part 11 is a summary of why OHJ has tentatively persuaded him, after a final collecting of his personal probability estimates, which work out to a Bayesian conclusion of 99% against historicity.
I have just one thing to add here. In the latter Covington mentions his opinion that “if someone demonstrated that Mark probably had an historical Jesus in mind” then that would tip the scales over to historicity, because Mark was writing so early he couldn’t be mistaken about that. I disagree. The evidence of Roswell disconfirms the required premise (OHJ, pp. 249-50). And that’s even if we assume Mark was written in the 70s. It could have been written decades later. But even by the 70s, we are a lifetime away from the events related (OHJ, Element 22), and possibly a whole continent away as well (if Mark was written in Europe or Africa, although even Syria would have been a world away given ancient transportation).
For example, if Mark could believe an hours-long extinguishing of the sun was historical (Proving History, pp. 41-60), mistakenly believing Jesus was historical would be vastly easier. This holds even for Christians a century later, who would have as much evidence no such darkness occurred (in public libraries of the time) as Mark (a Greek writer with imperfect knowledge of Judea and likely writing nowhere near it) would have that there was no Jesus (the difficulty of disconfirming it would be considerable: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 7). Yet those later Christians appear to have bought that sun thing, hook, line, and sinker (even Hippolytus did, and he actually built public libraries). So I see no reason to think people could not be believing in a historical Jesus by the 70s, just as people were already believing in a recovered flying saucer and alien bodies at Roswell in the 1980s, also just forty years after the fact.
And even then, we would have to tease out the difference between Mark intending his readers to believe in a historical Jesus, and Mark himself actually believing it (on why merely “intending” it does not support historicity, see OHJ, Elements 13 and 14). So I don’t think there is much opportunity to rescue historicism by this route. It’s not enough to show Mark intended a historical Jesus, nor even enough to show he believed in one himself. One simply has to show that Mark had information that he could not have had unless there was a historical Jesus (or at least, that he would not probably have). The report of there being a historical Jesus is not such a piece of information, any more than the report of there being a recovered flying saucer and alien bodies at Roswell is.
But that’s my only quibble here. Covington is otherwise right as to how else historicity can be rescued (if it can be rescued). And in his part 11 he closes with a fair summary of how laypeople should respond to the publication of OHJ: “Historicists may be able to defeat mythicism, but if so, they will have to stop using bad arguments.” And until they do, the case against historicity is respectably strong.
For a complete list of my responses to critiques of OHJ, see the last section of my List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus.