I’ve had on my to-do list for some time to write about all the weirdly inept videos on the historicity of Jesus posted by YouTuber Kristi Winters lately. So I’ll do that now. In two parts. In the first, she starts sensible and merely wrong. In the second, she descends into confusion and slander. Today, part one.
Winters is a political sociologist with no relevant credentials in history or biblical studies. Which would be fine, if she knew to compensate for the universal Dunning-Kruger effect by being more careful in researching expert opinion on a subject she herself has no expertise in, before commenting authoritatively on it. It’s actually a moral responsibility of an educator to do that. Because if you don’t, you will end up miseducating the public, spreading false information, and making the lives of real scholars harder. Because now we have to debunk all the falsehoods she spreads, before we can get to teaching people the actual facts of a thing. That’s annoying. I would rather amateurs do their homework instead. That makes our lives so much easier. And makes the world a better place, by correctly informing the public about the knowledge humanity has amassed. Alas.
It reminds me of a crank response I received lately by a Plantinga fan, who didn’t like the fact that I said Alvin Plantinga is spreading pseudoscience because he bases his arguments of factual falsehoods that he completely made-up about cognitive science. Plantinga has a new weird theory about cognitive systems and cognitive evolution. He is obligated to get that new theory passed through peer review before it becomes anything other than pseudoscience. Plantinga doesn’t have to do that to speak informedly and responsibly on the subject—all he has to do is correctly cite or describe, and base his arguments on, the actual established science on the subject. But he doesn’t do that, either. And that makes his work on cognitive evolution nothing but pseudoscience. The crank’s response was to say how dare I say that, I of all people, the promulgator of the consensus-challenging view of “Jesus mythicism.” Implying that that’s also pseudoscience (or pseudohistory, to get the analogy right).
Except, I actually am a qualified expert on that subject. And, I actually did get my theory published through peer review in a mainstream academic press in the relevant field. Plantinga is not (he has no credentials as a cognitive scientist), and didn’t (his theory of cognitive evolution has been published in no peer reviewed journal in any cognitive science field). That doesn’t mean my theory is true. But it does mean you can’t just assert my theory is pseudohistory. I actually met the standards and requirements of the field. It’s not pseudo anymore. It’s actual. It could be wrong. But that’s now a debate for actual experts to work out. Experts who actually read and respond to the peer reviewed literature of their own field.
Forty years ago, this is where we were with the historicity of Abraham and Moses. A fringe maverick challenging the mainstream consensus with a single peer reviewed study. Forty years later, that fringe maverick’s theory, that they didn’t exist, is the mainstream consensus. Where will the field land on Jesus in forty years? Only time will tell.
I think the matter began with her video Historical Jesus? Yes (10 March 2015), which merged two previous videos; then Doing Jesus Wrong? Jesus as Theory, Not as a Conclusion (16 August 2015); and then Historical Jesus or Mythical Jesus? (28 August 2016), subtitled “Using ‘Did Jesus Exist’ by Prof. Bart Ehrman.” Then she went into more detail in An Atheist Defends the Historical Jesus (5 August 2016) and Historical Jesus as Theory Episode 1 (14 September 2016). I couldn’t figure out if she ever made an episode 2, but she did go on to produce a slew of other videos on the topic: An Atheist Defends the Historical Jesus: Mythical Jesuses (8 August 2017); Dear Mythical Jesus Proponents (An Open Letter) (11 August 2017); An Atheist Defends The Historical Jesus: Body of Christologies (13 August 2017); and An Atheist Defends The Historical Jesus: Body of Christologies 2 (16 Septemeber 2017). “Yeah, maybe it’s…a bit obsessive,” as Dr. Oatman would say.
Notably, though these videos began well into 2015, and my peer reviewed book on the subject—still the only one in a hundred years—was published in early 2014, Winters never shows any sign of ever having read it (nor Proving History, my peer reviewed book on methods pertaining to the subject, released in 2012). Not reading any of the peer reviewed literature directly on your subject of discussion is usually a bad way to start. She instead relies only on Ehrman’s pop market book Did Jesus Exist? (which was rife with factual and logical errors, and also did not address anything on OHJ or PH), un-peer-reviewed non-expert literature (like G.A. Wells), and research not directly on the question of historicity but that mostly just presumes historicity as a premise. This is not a valid way to approach the subject.
Winters also is not reliable as a student of the subject. She does say a lot of correct things. But then makes factual assertions as if she knows them to be true, when in fact they are false. For instance, in her earliest video she says the “angels having sex with humans” story in Genesis is just one line (Genesis 6:4), and isn’t picked up again for thousands of years. That’s false. Genesis isn’t even “thousands” of years old as a text by the time Christianity arose (its earliest layer was written no earlier than 1000 B.C. and its most recent dates to the 500s B.C.). And the specific line she mentions was not ignored. It was hugely elaborated into a standard Jewish doctrine in the Book of Enoch, written just a few centuries before Christianity. And it’s important to know that. Because it became a major and influential Jewish text that the first Christians were already regarding as scripture.
That has no relevance to the historicity debate. But it illustrates Winters’ tendency to make assertions about the facts as if she knows them to be true, yet she’s done no research to verify them. So she ends up making wholly false claims, that she pretends to know are true. This makes her videos unusable, IMO. You can’t ever know when she is asserting something she checked, or something she never checked at all. For example, in her videos it’s clear she doesn’t know even basic facts like that Ephesians is a forgery (it wasn’t written by Paul). She also claims mythicists only question the evidence and don’t test alternative theories of the origins of Christianity against the evidence, which isn’t even true of the terrible mythicists. It’s certainly not true of the peer reviewed mythicism that had been published for a whole year by the time she began recording. She didn’t make any effort to study any of it (not even the terrible stuff).
Nevertheless, let’s find out what her arguments in defense of the historicity of Jesus are, as they evolve through time…
Winters on Jesus in 2015
In her 2015 combined video, Winters aims to argue that a historical Jesus is the best explanation of the data, against an unidentified opponent of that conclusion. The first problem with that, is that without an actual opponent, she is basically just making up all the opposition in her head. Which kind of guarantees a win. You can’t critique someone’s position, by never learning what that position is, but just inventing what you think it is in your own mind. That’s a fail at skepticism 101. And yet it’s still not enough to meet an actual opponent. You need to meet the strongest opponent of a position. If you just conjure the worst opponent, and prevail, you actually haven’t demonstrated anything (other than that they don’t have a sound conclusion; not that the conclusion isn’t sound). This is of course called a straw man fallacy. Good skeptics must always instead steel man the argument they oppose. Surely, the strongest opponent of her position would be the one actually in the peer reviewed literature of the field. But no, she can’t be bothered. That’s another fail at skepticism 101.
Her argument essentially only consists of two main points, one of which fails by not correctly taking into account what competing theories even assert; while the other fails by depending on old scholarly assumptions that are actually refuted by the primary evidence. She also proposes a third argument, an argument from prior probability, that only goes wrong by relying on the wrong reference class, which is an understandable mistake she could have corrected had she read OHJ. And she adds a few other minor arguments as well. Let’s see how they hold up…
- Winters’ first argument is that Jesus must have existed, because Paul talks about Jesus as if he existed.
This is a non sequitur. Mythicism also entails Paul believed Jesus existed. In the same sense Satan and Gabriel existed. But Satan and Gabriel don’t really exist. So Winters has gone awry here, by not actually addressing any actual theory of mythicism, thus straw manning it as the view that even Paul didn’t believe Jesus existed. But no viable form of mythicism says that. To the contrary, the only version of mythicism that has passed peer review, holds that Paul and the earliest Christians believed Jesus did indeed exist…in outer space. They just didn’t believe he was a Galilean preacher. That was invented later. (And consequently, they never mention it.) So finding evidence of Paul believing Jesus existed is as irrelevant as finding evidence he believed Satan existed (2 Corinthians 12:7; 2 Corinthians 4:4; etc.). That is no more evidence Satan existed, than that Jesus did. What we need is evidence that Paul definitely believed Jesus was a historical man on earth. And there is none (OHJ, Ch. 11). Which is actually weird.
Likewise, the only viable form of mythicism, the only one that’s passed peer review, holds that Paul also believed Jesus was incarnated into Jewish (Davidic) flesh, and thus became a man (OHJ, Chs. 3 and 11). But there is still no evidence Paul believed that that happened on earth, that it was observed by anyone, or known to anyone in any way other than revelation. So finding evidence Paul believed Jesus was incarnated as a Jewish man and died, is not evidence against mythicism either. Mythicism does not argue that Paul thought Jesus was mythical. So Paul thinking Jesus was mythical is not even the correct theory to be testing here. Any more than one would try to argue that Paul didn’t think Satan was mythical, therefore Satan must be an actual human man who lived on earth. Winters shows repeatedly in her 2015 videos that she doesn’t know this; that she thinks mythicism argues Paul went around preaching that Jesus didn’t exist or was never a man. Which is a complete failure to understand the theory she is supposed to be challenging. As we’ll see in Part 2, even after three years, she still has this wrong.
- Winters’ second, and only nearly sound, argument is that she sees an evolution of Christology in the Gospels, from the simple adoptionism of Mark to the incarnated pre-existent-being theology of John.
That’s indeed the case. Mark sells adoptionism. Matthew and Luke add in a more overt incarnationalism. And John tweaks that all the way up to proto-trinitarianism (or at least our redaction of John does; earlier editions might not have, but the fact that one version eventually did remains). And many an expert has made this argument. There is one fatal problem to it, though. Paul predates Mark by 20 years. And he already has the pre-existent incarnation theology of John combined with adoptionism. In fact, no other version is known to Paul. Or any pre-Markan Christian we know.
In fact, not only is that advanced hybrid theology already the standard and only form of Christianity in Paul, he quotes a pre-Pauline creed establishing it that likely dates to the very origin of the entire religion in Philippians 2. And in fact Bart Ehrman, Winters’ own preferred expert, now agrees that that theology began at the very origin of the faith. So it is no longer the case that that was a post-Markan invention. So there is no pattern of increasing Christology in the Gospels. Winters’ entire argument is now false. And false even on the word of her own mainstream experts. What has actually happened is that the Gospels got progressively less allegorical over time, i.e. they are increasingly becoming overt about their true theology, and hiding less for secret oral communication to initiates (per Mark 4:9-12).
Mark is widely agreed by mainstream experts to be a Pauline Gospel, i.e. Mark is specifically set out to sell the version of the faith Paul developed. Several experts have made a pretty good case that Mark was even well aware of the Epistles of Paul (see Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul: The Influence of the Epistles on the Synoptic Gospels and Mark: Canonizer of Paul). But Paul’s creed was incarnational and adoptionist. There is no reasonable possibility Mark did not know that. Which means when Mark doesn’t include incarnational theology in his Gospel, it’s because he is hiding it. Not because it didn’t exist or Mark didn’t believe in it. There is in fact no evidence of any Christian group at any time in the whole first hundred years of Christianity that ever believed in anything else.
The debate between incarnationists and adoptionists of the second century, is only observed among historicist sects. Who show no signs of any real knowledge of early first century versions of their religion. That debate reflects a problem created by historicizing Jesus. Once Jesus was no longer secretly taught as undergoing a celestial passion, but euhemerized into an earthly man, Paul’s combined theology of incarnationism and adoptionism didn’t make logical sense (whereas it made perfect sense when it was invented). This led to factions resolving the contradiction by choosing one side or the other (becoming adoptionist historicists, or incarnationist historicists). But before Jesus was historicized, no such debate would have made any sense, and certainly would not have occurred to anyone. And lo and behold, that debate only arises fifty or so years after Jesus was historicized, a hundred years after the religion began. Exactly as mythicism predicts. Not as historicity predicts, where that debate should have existed already from the very beginning of the religion. And yet, no such debate exists anywhere in Paul. It’s unknown to him.
This is one of many ways where the old way of looking at the evidence, based on Christian faith traditions, is no longer valid. When you go back and re-look at the evidence without those unfounded modern presuppositions, the evidence looks completely different. Christianity began incarnationist (OHJ, Element 10 in Ch. 4, with Ch. 11). That was not some evolution decades after Mark’s Gospel. And the evidence for that is as solid as any evidence we have for early Christianity: Paul explicitly says it was incarnationist; Paul even quotes a pre-Pauline creed that affirms it was; and Paul never mentions anyone ever contesting it, even when he mentions competing sects of the faith that he insisted be declared anathema (e.g. Galatians 1). There is, likewise, no other evidence from pre-Markan Christianity that mentions anything else.
Winters does claim there are pre-Pauline texts in Acts that supposedly attest a non-incarnationist view. Ehrman has also asserted this. But there is no evidence of any such thing. Acts was invented by Luke, a post-Markan author, and is so fictional and deliberately contrafactual as to be wholly unreliable (OHJ, Ch. 9). And even apart from that, as I pointed out in my review of Ehrman’s book on the divinity of Jesus:
All of Ehrman’s other evidence [that Jesus was once not regarded as pre-existent] consists solely of showing (from Paul and Acts) that there was an early belief that Jesus was declared the Son of God at his resurrection. What he fails to consider is that Jesus was re-declared so, in other words, reaffirmed to his previous status, which he had relinquished (as Philippians 2 says), having shed that status to become human and die. Ehrman at no point considers this alternative, even though it is self-evidently what the Philippians hymn is saying—a hymn which Ehrman agrees is pre-Pauline and thus among the earliest recoverable Christian tradition.
So that evidence doesn’t hold up on analysis. It doesn’t mean what Winters claims. It’s actually the same thing Paul was saying: that the pre-existent archangel Jesus humbled himself and then was re-exalted at his resurrection (to the same or possibly higher status). But she can’t be faulted for simply echoing what experts like Ehrman have asserted. A non-expert can’t be expected to see the errors in an expert’s argument. Although this is why one needs to read more than just one expert (like, for example, the authors Ehrman himself cites arguing for early high Christology; or that I do: OHJ, pp. 92-93 n. 64). There are a lot of disagreements among historicists. Many do not concur with Ehrman’s attempt to rehabilitate early non-incarnationalism. Failing to control for selection bias, is another failure at skepticism 101.
Nevertheless, Winters’ argument here (from a perceived progression in Gospels theology, to historicity) is at least a mainstream, respectable argument. It just falls apart on analysis. And stubborn experts in the field are just refusing to admit that. So she can’t be faulted for reasoning this way. Until they wake up and admit this argument is completely contradicted by the evidence, we can’t say the mainstream consensus agrees this is no longer a valid argument for the historicity of Jesus. And there are a growing number of scholars coming around on this.
- Winters’ third argument is an argument from prior probability: that the first century was awash with messiahs (indeed, outright Jesus Christs, “Messianic Joshuas,” per OHJ, Element 4, Ch. 4), so it’s probable Jesus was just another one of them.
This is prima facie a reasonable tack to take, and IMO why the next most likely theory for the origin of Christianity is more or less the theory of historicity she defends in these videos (I even show why in my lecture You’re All Gonna Die). But secunda facie, it falls apart. Because it’s the wrong reference class. The Jesus of Paul does not match these messianic figures. Only the Jesus of the Gospels could be said to. But the Jesus of the Gospels far more closely matches mythic hero types. Indeed, on far more points of comparison, the Gospel Jesus indisputably falls into several classes of nonhistorical heroes, who, like Jesus, were nevertheless all given historical biographies (see OHJ, Ch. 5; and my discussion here). Therefore, by her own reasoning, the prior probability is actually greater that Jesus, like them, didn’t exist. Jesus’s connection to those reference classes overrides his connection to the Other Christs class, because the Other Christs don’t belong to any of those classes, but Jesus does; and his connection to those other classes is far stronger and established on more numerous points of comparison (OHJ, Ch. 6.5).
It should be noted as well, that the Gospels build their Jesus out of other men (like Jesus ben Ananias, who had no connection whatever to Christianity and died decades after it began: OHJ, pp. 428-30). So even the Gospel material that depicts their Jesus as “like” other messiahs of the first century, we can’t establish wasn’t added after the fact. Just as it was with ben Ananias. This means we can’t use it to argue Jesus was just like them because he was historical. He may be just like them because he was fictional (see, for example, my review of Lena Einhorn). Since both causes make the same evidence equally likely, this evidence by itself is incapable of arguing for either thesis. What we have left, is all the evidence that matches Jesus with nonhistorical heroes. Uncovering facts like this, is one of the reasons I wrote OHJ.
That leaves us with a few other scattered arguments Winters throws in here and there…
- Argument from Semen:
Winters does attempt in her earliest videos an argument from Romans 1:3, which mentions Jesus being manufactured from the sperm of David. Winters delivers the argument confusingly. But the best formulation of it is that it doesn’t make sense to say Jesus was made of Davidic sperm unless Paul means biological descent on earth. But it’s actually as much the other way around. If Paul meant that, there are far less bizarre ways to say it. What Paul does say, in the original Greek, is so positively weird, that later Christians attempted to edit it into something more like what Winters imagines. That they had to do that, is evidence that that’s not what Paul meant (see the scripture index in OHJ for more on this passage and what’s weird about it). So when you look more closely at this evidence, without modern Christian faith assumptions, it becomes far more ambiguous, and far more compatible with the mythicist thesis than its English translation makes it sound (see OHJ, Ch. 11.9).
This argument (and others she hints at) make clear one major mistake Winters makes in her adjudicating of hypotheses: she is clearly unaware of the fact that Paul’s Jesus was a pre-existent divine being not identical with God. This is a common mistake amateur critics make in this debate: they think the options are “human being” or “identical with God.” In fact, Jesus was never imagined in any sense identical with God until the last known redaction of John’s Gospel (which dates sometime to the early second century, pretty much a hundred years after the religion began). But he was imagined to be a pre-existent and thus incarnated divine being from the very origins of the religion (as proved, again, by Paul’s recitation of the Philippians hymn).
The original creed held that Jesus, an archangel, the first created being in the universe, renounced his divine nature, to become a slave to the elements so he could be killed, to effect a maximal blood magic to save the universe (and this is all now agreed to be the case by even Bart Ehrman; it’s plainly stated in Philippians 2 and Hebrews 9, and elsewhere: see OHJ, Element 4, Ch. 4). Then God resurrected and re-exalted him to his previous divine power. And possibly promoted him yet further, although as we know from the pre-Christian Jewish theologian Philo, the archangel this Jesus was constructed from was already of that rank in Jewish angelology before Christianity invented his incarnation and death (OHJ, Element 40, Ch. 5). A fact not known to most experts in the field. But true all the same.
- Argument from Brothers:
Eventually Winters brings up the only credible argument for historicity there really has any chance of being, which is that Paul mentions meeting “the brother of the Lord” (and there being “brothers of the Lord”). But she is completely unaware of any mythicist explanations of these passages. So she has no useful argument to make about this. To argue for historicity from any piece of evidence, you need to compare a historicity model with an actual (and to avoid fallacy, the best) mythicist model. But Winters never does that. So she has no argument in fact to make here. And on scrutiny (when you actually start comparing a historicity model with its best alternative), it doesn’t hold up. Indeed, all other early evidence establishes that James, a leader of the church, being the brother of Jesus, is a late legend (OHJ, Chs. 9.3, 8.8, and 11.10).
Winters promises to develop a future video on the “Argument from James.” I wonder if she will finally start reading the peer reviewed literature when she does? Past experience with her, suggests not.
- Argument from Sayings:
Winters also says that Q being a sayings Gospel (it’s not; nor is there any evidence it existed: OHJ, index, “Q”) is evidence for historicity because she has never heard of sayings collections coming from a non-existent person. After having just said she agrees Moses is a non-existent person. From whom we have a large collection of sayings (not just in the OT, but nearly the entire Mishnah, which is regarded as the words of Moses). But there are many other examples. Aesop and many other sages of the Greeks have sayings collections of dubious historicity. There were sayings collections from Isis and Osiris. The Quran is nothing but the sayings of the angel Gabriel. But even apart from precedents, it’s well known to mainstream experts that most of the sayings of Jesus even in Q if it existed, are fabricated. Not least being the Sermon on the Mount, which is known to be a post-war fabrication in Greek, by someone relying on the Greek translation of the Old Testament as its scriptural base (OHJ, pp. 465-68). So clearly, Q contained made-up sayings. And if it contained many fabricated sayings, as all mainstream experts agree it did, it may for all we know contain nothing but. There is really no evidence otherwise. Which is why no historian today uses this argument.
Moreover, Paul tells us the sayings of Jesus came from revelation and scripture (e.g. Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 2 Corinthians 12:8-9; etc.). So does 1 Clement (OHJ, Ch. 8.5 ). He mentions no other source; and in fact denies there being any (e.g. Galatians 1). So Paul himself attests that collections of sayings could come from non-existent persons—since we well know, even if once he existed, Jesus no longer existed when Paul was “learning sayings” from him.
- Just Dumb Arguments:
Okay. Those are at least okay arguments. They’re merely wrong; and an amateur would not readily know that. But now to the doldrums of face-palm land.
Winters claims Jesus must be historical because Mark doesn’t start his Gospel with any magic. I guess she missed the rending of the heavens and the booming voice from the sky, and the Disney animals and angels (Mark 1:10-13). She also says there are no magical stories about Jesus in Mark at all. Like walking on water, murdering thousands of pigs by the commanding of spirits, withering a fig tree, telekinetically rending an eighty-foot-high temple curtain, blotting out the sun for three hours. You know, no magic. Likewise she thinks the fact that Mark invented a fake story of Jesus meeting Moses and Elijah entails Jesus was historical, because an author wouldn’t make up a story like that unless Jesus really existed. I won’t even bother parsing the logic of that one. Similarly, she can’t imagine why a Jew would make up stories about a non-existent person. Like Moses. Wait. Um. Okay. I won’t bother parsing that one either.
Finally, in her second video of 2015, Winters reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of history as a science. She argues that pointing out the unreliability, falsity, or dishonesty of sources doesn’t increase our knowledge of the world and is an invalid way to do history. In fact, the single most distinctive challenge of history as a science is that most of our sources are unreliable, falsified, or dishonest. Tackling that fact is actually required of historians (PH, Ch. 2). And it most certainly does increase our knowledge of the world. Identifying which letters and documents were forged, tells us a great deal. Identifying which alterations were made to the text of the Bible over time, tells us a great deal. Identifying how and when authors lie to us, tells us a great deal. Noting how and when authors err, tells us a great deal. That’s all knowledge. And being able to ascertain where all the deceptions, falsifications, and errors lie in a source, is the most fundamental step in any historical inquiry.
The strange irony is that in that same video, Winters articulates a methodology that is exactly the methodology I deploy in On the Historicity of Jesus: we need to compare competing theories against the evidence, to see which makes that evidence more likely. The only peer reviewed monograph on the subject published in a hundred years. And that had been published a whole year ahead of her video. So the very thing she insisted mythicists should do, I did. And she has no idea at all that it had been done. Which is fatal to her video’s goal, because she fails to consider any actual peer reviewed theory alternative to historicity. So how can she assert historicity is more probable, than a theory she knows nothing about and never examined?
Alas, it only gets worse when Winters finally does discover my work. Far from acting as she should, glad to see a mythicist treatise following the method she herself recommended and even meeting the peer review standards of its own field—and thus responding to it honestly and in scholarly fashion—she completely fails to read any of it and resorts instead to slander. But for that story, you’ll have to await the ‘morrow.
Part 2 will be published here.