Some Godless Comments on McFall's Review of On Jesus

by Richard C. Carrier

Copyright 2002. The right to quote or reproduce this work in full is granted to anyone who credits the author and does not use it for profit.

See Mark McFall's article "On Jesus" for context, and McFall's rebuttal to Carrier's comments.


Greetings all. I am an fairly well-known atheist author with credentials in ancient history and historical method. I have not read the reviewed book by Groothius, but Mark McFall requested that I comment on his review. I have been impressed by McFall's even-handed treatment of debate between the Christian and atheist communities and I am happy to oblige, as I have in the past (see "Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange").

I will remark point-by-point on five conceptual and historical issues raised by McFall. Whether they apply to Groothius I cannot say. I have only raised issues that I think require significant illumination. Other matters are already adequately addressed online, in the Secular Web Modern Library in particular. Even if I don't agree with certain points, our disagreement is not significant enough to warrant response. For example, I do not believe Josephus ever mentioned Jesus, but McFall's discussion of this issue is charitable to both sides and his opinion, though different from mine, is nevertheless an acceptable hypothesis. The same can be said for many other minor issues, such as regarding the significance of the number of biblical manuscripts. Instead, I will address what I regard as major points of contention:

I. 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. 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, especially "philosophy" according to Aristotle (the study of the nature of all aspects of being through rigorous logic and the analysis of language). Such reference works are not concerned with religious doctrine. It would be as strange to include Reverend Moon in an Encyclopedia of Philosophy as it would Jesus. Yet Moon has a far more complete and coherently articulated worldview than Jesus presents (unlike Jesus, Moon wrote his own books, some ten or so to date).

There are deeper problems than that. No one can even agree on what Jesus said or meant, especially on matters that pertain to the interests of philosophers (just contrast what Groothius apparently argues with the writings of Spong, Crosson, or Robertson), nor can anyone agree what philosophical influences were upon him, so incorporating him in a philosophy reference would be extremely difficult and inevitably contentious. Furthermore, Jesus did not explicitly interact with any existing philosophy of his day, he did not employ any of the methods definitive of ancient or even modern philosophy (definition, classification, and explicit inference from facts to theories), nor did he do anything that wasn't already being done by hundreds of other rabbis of the era, whose views are just as well preserved in the Talmuds. Or consider similar parabolic teachers of the era who also are not listed with philosophers: Apollonius of Tyana, Aelius Aristeides, Lucian, Aesop. Like the rabbis on record, they would deserve as much a place in any reference work on philosophers as Jesus would. But one must draw a line somewhere, and Jesus doesn't make the cut.

Finally, what Jesus "does" isn't really what a philosopher does. Consider the three most vital branches of philosophy: epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics (the other two branches are aesthetics and politics). Jesus was certainly an ethicist, but he did not address serious ethical problems and questions in the methodical way Plato's Socrates did, nor in the systematic way of Seneca or Epicurus, much less Aristotle. Jesus also says very little on the subject of what knowledge is or how one discerns true knowledge from false. And what Groothius apparently discusses under the heading of "metaphysics," isn't really that at all, but what the ancients called physics (and what is today no longer the province of philosophy, but science--and, one might allow, theology). Metaphysics in the proper sense is the study of the nature of nature itself, of matter and thought and being.

Jesus has some things to say that relate to all these things, but not enough, nor anything with enough precision or detail, to be matched with real philosophers of his time. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in these fundamental philosophical questions, just as he has no apparent interest in the issues of logical or dialectical method, or in the outstanding philosophical problems debated in public forums even when Jesus lived--and even in his own neck of the woods: public debates on serious philosophical questions were raging in Tyre throughout the 1st and 2nd centuries, as exemplified by Maximus of Tyre in his extant lectures.

Ultimately, while McFall thinks "simplicity" is a virtue, I must disagree. Though the rambling mountain of Buddhist texts is indeed a failing, one needs a lot more than Jesus gives us to get a clear, accurate and detailed picture of a complete philosophical system. A philosopher can be concise without being incomplete, superficial, or obscure. He can be fair to opponents and address all major objections without rambling away a mountain. But in actual fact, very little of what Jesus says even resembles philosophy as a genre, but more closely fits collections of parables and apothegms, such as Plutarch and Philostratus collected for all kinds of great men throughout history. For all these reasons, attempting to raise Jesus to the category of "philosopher" seems excessive.

Still, 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. Unfortunately, since the methods and worldview of Jesus are the very things that lie at the heart of dissention fracturing the church into hundreds of sects, I doubt much progress can be made by one more effort to interpret Jesus on these matters. What everyone will agree with will of course be nothing new. And insofar as what Groothius concludes conflicts with any sectarian doctrine, so much the worse for Groothius. Unless he plans to start his own church.

II. Second is the claim that "Socrates and Jesus are on equal ground" in regards source reliability.

One must distinguish two things here: historicity and ideology. McFall, and Groothius, seem in the main to be discussing the latter, the evidence for which is different than that for historicity, either of the men themselves or any particular event in their lives. Also, there is a difference in reliability between literal sayings and general ideology. McFall seems to be concerned with the latter, accepting that the former might not be what we have in the Gospels. I see no problem with that. So here we will keep in mind only the relative reliability of sources for the ideology of Jesus and Socrates.

It is true that neither left us any writings, so their ideas only come to us second-hand. However, in the first place, this is not much comfort. For in fact, no expert regards the thought of Socrates as reliably known, precisely because we only have it through the filter of others. Since Socratic studies are always prefaced with the caveat that the findings will be speculative, uncertain and limited, one cannot claim any more for the study of Jesus. Christians are too ready to underplay this problem. And for them it is a problem, in a much more serious way than for scholars of Socrates.

But the situation is even worse than that. For the similarities end there. The differences in source situation between the thought of Socrates and the thought of Jesus all weigh heavily toward diluting the reliability of the sources for Jesus in comparison with Socrates. Thus, they are not in the same boat after all. Socrates is significantly better off.

First: We know nothing reliable at all about any of the Gospel authors. Even their names are uncertain, but more importantly their philosophical affiliations and doctrinal assumptions are also uncertain. We don't even know when they wrote or what their sources of information were, or how removed those sources were from their subject, or how reliable they are. Nor can we establish that the Gospel authors knew Jesus. In contrast, we have four distinct first-hand sources on the ideas of Socrates: Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, and (to a lesser extent) Aristotle. We know who these men all were, we know their ideological allegiances and backgrounds, we know when they wrote, and we know for a fact they 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). 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.

Second: Since the authors recording the ideas of Socrates wrote so much, we know a great deal about their trustworthiness and accuracy. Plato discusses Socrates in fictional dialogues, but also in letters, and claims to preserve an entire speech of his as delivered at his trial (which is likely, however much Plato may have reworked it, since it was not uncommon to compose a speech in writing to memorize for delivery in court). Plato's dialogues are also known to have been available to the surviving witnesses, who could have contradicted any egregious falsehood they contained. Xenophon, a notably reliable historian and instructor, dedicates an extensive account to his encounters with the man, precisely in large part to correct what he thought were distortions in Plato. Aristotle, the Father of Modern Philosophy himself, discusses his ideas in various contexts. And Aristophanes wrote a play that made fun of him and his philosophy (The Clouds), while he was still alive, and almost certainly in the audience.

In contrast, we have nothing comparable for the Gospel authors. Not only do we have nothing else to test them by, there are serious questions about their reliability even from what little we do have. For instance, they mention events no one could ever have been privy to (the end of Matthew in particular relates secret meetings no Christian sympathizer would have been present to hear) and events so fantastical they beg credulity, and, though skeptics usually overstate the matter, they do get some historical details wrong (on the latter two points, see for example my essays "Thallus: An Analysis" and "Luke and Josephus"). They also are not very independent, Matthew and Luke uncritically copying material from the same two sources (Mark and Q), while John contradicts them on many crucial issues, such as chronology.

Third: the Gospels were written in a highly contentious atmosphere of competing religious sects, each seeking to establish a particular view of Jesus with a mission of salvation and conversion, and to that end they have also all been toyed with by later scribes (see, for example, Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament; see also my essay "Two Examples of Faulty Bible Scholarship"). Though the extent of the "damage" this caused is often exaggerated, it is not to be ignored. There were also many other Gospels which were not allowed to survive, solely on doctrinal grounds (most notably, the so-called Egerton Gospel, one of the oldest fragments of the Gospel narrative ever found, yet it does not match any extant Gospel) and still others were rejected and later recovered, which have as good a claim to authenticity as the Gospel of John or the Epistles of Peter (most importantly, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Hermas: for more on this issue see my survey, "The Formation of the New Testament Canon"). This leaves us wondering which accounts are more to be trusted than others, and whether the ones we have really were the most accurate ones or if they were just the most agreeable ones.

In accord with the religious role of these documents, Mark seems to be the earliest to frame the story, yet his motives seem to have been to rework a cultural epic, not to write accurate history (see my "Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark"). And precisely because of religious motives, there are many serious questions about the Gospels' authenticity in relating details of the resurrection and nativity (for instance, see my essays "Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story" (The Yale Lecture) and "The Date of the Nativity in Luke"). Consequently, we cannot be too confident in other details like the words or ideas of Jesus. This is all the more so since these seem to be poor renderings of ideas more coherently presented elsewhere (for instance, see my essay "Musonius Rufus: a Brief Essay").

In contrast, no such problems arise for the record of Socrates. There were no doctrinal efforts to alter that record, and the record was not used to advance a religious doctrine. Though the Socrates we know is seen through the filters of men with their own philosophical views to support, the inclination this provided to alter the record in any way simply wasn't as significant, nor could it have been carried too far by the original authors without hundreds of eye-witnesses, in the most literate time and place in antiquity, calling the bluff. For instance, Aristotle, a competent historian and scientist, surely would have taken Plato to task for this, as he did on many other issues. Likewise, unlike the obscure and simplified sayings of Jesus, we have a great deal of careful, multi-faceted context for the sayings and ideas of Socrates. It is far easier to construct from the far more copious collection of Socrates' words a complete, coherent worldview than in the case of Jesus, where the actual evidence is relatively scarce and scattered (all we have are Mark and Q, and whatever else lies in John, but altogether it amounts to scarcely a scroll's worth of words, in contrast with almost a dozen for Socrates).

Therefore, not only is our position with regard to the sayings of Jesus no better than with regard to Socrates, which is already not very good, but our position is even three degrees worse. Still, if one is only concerned with the Jesus as the Gospel authors wanted him to be or thought he was, this is less of a problem.

III. Third is the claim that Jesus had "a strong concern for logic and argument."

Nearly everyone uses reason. And Jesus was certainly not a babbling fool. But it is invalid to say that because there is a logic in what Jesus says and because Jesus argued with people (neither fact anyone disputes), that therefore Jesus had a strong concern for Logic and Argument.

First, Logic and Argument were then and still are fields in dispute. Thus, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus definitely had "a strong concern for logic and argument," because he discussed what logic and argument were, and settled questions of whether they are useful and how they are to be properly conducted. Jesus did no such thing. Chrysippus is thus properly called a philosopher. Jesus is but a thinker and teacher. He may have had a logic, he may have used a logic, but he didn't do what philosophers do: discuss logic.

More importantly, Logic and Argument are, and were in Jesus' day, skilled fields of inquiry subject to a careful method. Their very point was to limit error through systematic adherence to various well-proven principles. Jesus shows no awareness of the canons of logic or argument accepted by his peers. He simply spouts "responsa" to questions and paradoxes. Indeed, in many cases his reasoning is overtly fallacious, yet his opponents are not allowed to continue debate on the matter, in contrast with Plato's Socrates', whose discussion of the methods of reasoning is explicit, and whose opponents were allowed to engage him at length, sometimes even to a stalemate.

An example: Jesus simply dismisses the charge that he was an agent of the devil by appealing to his exorcisms and the argument that "a house divided against itself cannot stand" (Mark 3:20-26; Matthew 12:22-26; Luke 11:14-18). But that is a fallacy. Just because the Parthian king wages war on one of his satraps does not mean Parthia will fall, nor does it mean the Parthian king is not the enemy of Rome. In contrast to what Jesus says, this is called setting one's house in order. In like fashion, a diabolist could certainly take power from Satan and use it against the minions of Satan, not only to fulfill Satan's will (like the king ousting his satrap), but to gain strategic advantages among his peers (the obvious one: deceiving witnesses into thinking you aren't working for Satan, by using clever-sounding but ultimately fallacious arguments against that very charge). To make matters worse, Jesus proclaims that belief in him will set father against son, mother against daughter, and everyone against everyone else (Luke 12:51-53; Matthew 10:34-36). In other words, he will divide his own house. By his own reasoning, doesn't that mean his own house is doomed to fall?

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 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 is also exaggerated.

IV. Fourth is the claim that "at that time, only handful of philosophers...stood on the threshold of reforming patriarchal society" in respect to women.

Jesus was certainly more liberal in his treatment of women than other Jews of his day. The rampant misogyny that has characterized Christianity comes from Paul, not Christ. But there is nothing Jesus said or did that was at all uncharacteristic of any educated Gentile. The Jews were far more reactionary toward woman than their Greek neighbors, a point that was often a matter of contention between the two communities. The Romans, in turn, were even more remarkably liberal compared to the Greeks. But as one might say today: anyone looks like a liberal next to Pat Robertson. Or Paul the Apostle.

In short, the claim that "only a handful of philosophers" had views of women at least as favorable as Jesus is false. To the contrary, it was common among all the educated Greco-Roman elite to have views on the matter comparable to what we can deduce from what Jesus said and did. And this liberal attitude originates with the Classical and Hellenistic philosophers, centuries before Jesus. Epicurus was the first to admit women into his school, and Musonius (whom McFall cites) was merely echoing what had been the Stoic line since pre-Christian times. It became increasingly common after Alexander's conquests for intellectuals to accept female students, and many Greek cities ever since then had endowments for the public education of all girls. Consequently, we know of many female poets, historians, and philosophers who were well-respected (though medieval scribes failed to preserve any of their writings). Plato, Seneca, Plutarch all write of the importance of women having a good education, and many extant portraits of women depict them holding scrolls, tablets, or pens to boast of their schooling. Indeed, to really drive home the degree of women's liberty that had been achieved (perhaps appalling to the average Christian even today), a rich man's party was considered dull as dishwater if not attended by several well-paid hookers (hetairai) who could debate the fine points of poetry and philosophy as well as any man.

It is more significant that many pagan philosophers wrote explicitly in defense of the improved treatment of women, yet Groothius is forced only to "infer" such doctrines indirectly from things Jesus said or did. It is thus improper to make Jesus out as anything remarkable in this regard. One could just as easily note in comparison that many important pagan gods were female, leaving a far more prestigious image of the feminine in pagan culture and religion, and in contrast to Jewish culture, major priesthoods could be and often were held by women. 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. Nor does Jesus condemn the death penalty, slavery, or monarchy, nor does he praise democracy, science, or dissent. All in all, Jesus was perfectly a product of his times, if perhaps an idealization thereof (though idealizations are more often the product of authors than the actors they write about). This is strong proof that Jesus was just another man, at best a man with more conviction than most, but with no special pipeline to a universal God.

V. Fifth is the claim that "ultimately skeptical rejection of Jesus' resurrection hinges more on one's personal philosophical outlook than it does on evidential arguments of historical significance."

This seems off the subject of Jesus as a philosopher and his ideology. But I will conclude with it, since McFall dedicates a lot of space to the matter, as apparently does Groothius (a Christian, I guess, can't resist putting a chapter selling his creed into every book, no matter how far from the book's actual topic it may be).

McFall is, in one sense, quite right, insofar as there are very good grounds, on overall background evidence, to classify the resurrection with all other supernatural accounts a priori. Since all the most reliable evidence points to naturalism and the non-existence of the supernatural (e.g. all supernatural events and claims that have been open to complete investigation have turned out either false or natural), it is a reasonable inference that the resurrection, being supernatural, is also either false or natural, a conclusion strengthened by the availability of several plausible natural explanations for the extant accounts.

This is essentially the same reasoning a Christian uses in rejecting the claim that Buddha bilocated, that Mohammed split the moon, or that the local priestess of Wicca actually cured cancer with a prayer to Odan. When you hear such stories, or hear of faith healers like Benny Hinn or spiritualists like Jonathan Edward, rarely do you actually do a thorough investigation. You simply, and rightly, dismiss them as probable frauds. Quite rightly, you expect a higher standard of evidence to be met before you will change your mind. You do the same when presented with a "too good to be true" offer in email, or receive a chain letter predicting certain doom if you fail to abide by its instructions. It's just common sense. I discuss this further in my "Review of In Defense of Miracles" (especially chapters 3a and 4a).

However, this line of reasoning is only valid if you permit the occasional review of emphatic claims. Thus, the ubiquity and persistence of belief in the resurrection calls upon one not to dismiss it solely by the above argument, but, as McFall asks, to also address the matter solely on its own merits. That is quite right. Hence I myself have assessed the resurrection claim by a neutral application of historical method and still found it wanting (per my Yale Lecture cited above). Because both approaches point independently to the exact same conclusion, they corroborate and reinforce each other. Hence I am justified in concluding it probable there was no physical resurrection of Jesus. In other words: the historical evidence is inadequate to support such a belief, not only, but especially given the independent fact that, based on the best evidence so far, naturalism is probably true.

That is how the skeptic sees the matter.


ITW extends appreciation to Richard Carrier for taking the time to respond on this issue.


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