Age of ReasonThe Jesus Puzzle

  RESPONSES to CRITIQUES of the Mythicist Case
Three:   Mike Licona
His review of The God Who Wasn't There by Brian Fleming

Licona's critique is featured on the "Answering Infidels" website at:
A Review of Brian Flemming's DVD "The God Who Wasn't There" -

(This is a response to Licona's critique of Brian Flemming's documentary and of the mythicist case in particular, as presented in Flemming's film and his interview of myself in the DVD version of "The God Who Wasn't There". Its highlights include a defense against Licona's anti-atheist position, an examination of the "parallels" between the Jesus myth and those of the pagan savior gods, and a definitive discussion of the Hebrews 8:4 statement that Jesus was never on earth. It concludes by addressing the claim that mainstream scholarship has "time and time again" discredited the mythicist case
a myth in itself, with an Addendum of my posting on the IIDB about the recent refusal of the Fourth R, the magazine of the Jesus Seminar, to discuss the Jesus Myth theory. Licona's words appear in red, while quoted texts are in black.)

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--  I  --
Faith Under Siege

It must seem to the apologetic community these days that religious tradition is coming increasingly under bombardment from all sides. Mike Licona refers to such forces as "hyperskeptical." How about just "skeptical"? These days, we have good reason to be so. The sheen has come off the biblical record, or perhaps it's the blinders that have finally come off many of those engaged in examining it. At the same time, certain elements of the population have undergone a maturation. For them, the advance of science and rationality make it no longer possible to accept the old stories as factual, or even as inspiring, much less pointing to some eternal truth. Those books on which so much of western culture has been built are increasingly being seen for what they are: products of a primitive and superstitious age, rooted in ignorance and ancient fantasy. They can no longer hold pride of place for those in modern society who have embraced our new and exploding knowledge about the universe and human nature. Instead they have become an albatross, suffocating, divisive, embarrassing, an impediment to social and intellectual progress. The human spirit is no longer enriched by these petrified traditions, which now look like fossils crying out for long overdue burial. There is nothing "hyper" about the skepticism which increasing numbers of people in today's society are bringing to the Old and the New Testaments. Rather, such skepticism is a reasonable and welcome reaction to writings and traditions which can no longer serve as a rational basis for society's laws, ethics and education. A mind once opened cannot be reclosed, and more and more minds today are unlocking their doors.

And yet a fierce rearguard action is being fought. In North America at least, it may seem that such reactionary forces still hold the upper hand
and for now, they may well do so. In terms of sheer numbers, it is incredible that in the 21st century so many should still hold to patently untenable and nonsensical ideas. Legions of believers still maintain that this vast, complex universe we see around us was created whole less than 10,000 years ago, that evolution, the centerpiece scientific discovery of our age on which so much understanding hinges, is a crock (or an atheist conspiracy), that all 'evil' is a result of an Original Sin committed by an ancestral couple in a middle-eastern garden, that the best and only legitimate system of ethical behavior mankind can come up with is that contained in the myths and arcane shamanism of a group of 3000 year old nomadic goatherders, that an omnipotent God's chosen system of "salvation" was the blood sacrifice of his Son, that this Son came to earth to teach us that the end of the world is around the (next) corner, that sickness is caused by demon spirits, and that every human being who has ever lived or ever will live on this planet (including those who preceded him, one supposes) is damned to eternal torment if they have not embraced him as the only channel to God. These are only the most egregious of a host of challenges which Christian doctrine continues to present to our intelligence, our humanity, our desire to live in a sane and optimistic world.

And yet there seems to be no shortage of people in our midst ready to defend this state of affairs to the death
which is to say, their own intellectual death. One of these is Mike Licona. I am told he is a "student" of Gary Habermas, a well-known evangelical apologist. These days, apologists are increasingly of the evangelical and fundamentalist variety. This is no accident. The steady progress of enlightenment over the last few generations has resulted in the well-noted decline of the established churches, and with them the decline of mainstream apologists ready and anxious to defend every aspect of traditional faith. The liberalization of much of mainstream scholarship is not a case of religion itself becoming more flexible and enlightened, but of secular values and principles of scientific critical thinking making inroads into the religious mentality. The Bible still does notnor cannotendorse evolution, despite the grudging compromises of the Vatican on the subject. Like an antibiotic, modern science and rationality has had a degree of curative effect on all but the most conservative Christian expression, bringing it to a more liberal state of health while leaving the most resistant strains to survive and flourish. That is the situation we see in North America today, with the emergence of Christian fundamentalism and the evangelical movement, which has spread like an epidemic through the body politic and into the fields of education, as well as the domestic entrails of great swaths of society's heartland.

And so the defense of the faith as traditionally known has largely fallen to the voices of such as Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig. Throughout the course of his review, Licona makes much unspecific appeal to "historians" and "scholars" who champion his viewpoint against skeptics like myself
and lesser sinners (but not too much less) such as misguided liberals like those of the Jesus Seminar. But this vast supportive collegiate is almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of the most conservative of biblical exegetes, far to the right on the critical spectrum, if indeed they lie anywhere upon it. Bible colleges and evangelical universities are churning out great numbers of graduates in biblical studies for whom the term "critical" is a four-letter word, one never to be confused with "confessional." Thus Licona is certainly right when he maintains that the "majority" are not in agreement with the skeptics. Even so, progress has always been driven by the skeptical element in any discipline, those who are not content to bask in the peace and security of received wisdom, and for whom there is a great difference between education and indoctrination.

Brian Flemming's focus in The God Who Wasn't There was only partially devoted to the subject of the non-existence of an historical Jesus, and my own contribution to his DVD was no more than one among several. But Licona has placed the Jesus Myth theory squarely in his sights, with myself in the crosshairs, and so I am taking it upon myself to respond to the critique as a whole, including aspects of it not related to the Jesus question
though well related to the principles of my Age of Reason website and publishing house. Licona's critique, and his rebuttal to the case for the non-existence of Jesus, is of uneven quality, though it is largely free of excessive rancour when compared to others in the field; which is not to say that it lacks its own wealth of special pleading, question-begging, and other assorted fallacies, but this is to be expected as part and parcel of the apologetic industry. He takes notice of my complaint that the Jesus Myth theory so far lacks a thorough addressing and rebuttal from the field of recognized New Testament scholarship (I will be discussing this at some length at the end of this article), but he thinks to substitute for this a number of critiques found on the Internet by "amateurs" whom he equates with my own level, since I have acknowledged that term, technically speaking, in application to myself. But this avoids the point. First of all, if those counter-amateurs were producing critiques that contained effective arguments with a good degree of academic integrity, could stand up to rational examination, were not obviously confessionally driven (with the exception of Bernard Muller), they might have some merit. To date, I have not found a single one which meets those obligations. In any case, this still leaves the major issue unchallenged, namely, that to date no modern first-rank scholar within the mainstream has taken it upon him or herself to produce a thorough, informed, and honest rebuttal of the Jesus Myth position, despite the regular enlistment, by the likes of Mike Licona, of such scholarship as a whole in the ranks of those 'authorities' who are claimed to have already rejected it on allegedly well-informed grounds and careful consideration. Those grounds and that consideration have been demonstrated to be virtually non-existent, and thus the claim still needs to be proven. I intend to demonstrate here that Mike Licona's critique will not fill that bill either.

The God Who Wasn't There

Licona opens his review by commenting on the quality of Brian Flemming's documentary, citing its "poor" production values. It may be that Flemming was operating on a shoestring budget, or didn't feel it necessary to aim for an Oscar in Cinematography; and I can't speak to the extent of his experience as a filmmaker. But this is irrelevant. If I, for example, appeared on the lecture circuit with a rumpled suit and spoke with somewhat less proficiency than a professional orator, it would hardly be germane to the legitimacy or power of my arguments. Nor is it directly relevant to observe that Flemming seems "embittered against Christianity," or even "religion itself." It has often been the case that those who are led to expose the fallacies and detriments of any system are precisely those who have suffered under its hands. It's a little like claiming that victims of crime ought to have no input on how laws should be fashioned and how sentences should be meted out. I know nothing of Flemming's experiences with religion beyond what he reveals in his documentary, but society as a whole has suffered collectively in its experience of religion and continues to do so, and many of the voices being raised today in its criticism are a reaction to that collective experience. And we continue to have more than enough to be "embittered" about.

As for Flemming's subject matter, Licona has erroneously assumed that the topic of this documentary is exclusively the existence of Jesus, accusing him of "flip-flopping" by touching on other aspects as well, such as the atrocities committed in the name of religion. But Flemming's brush is broader than simply the question of Jesus' historicity, though this is his centerpiece. Licona acknowledges the examples Flemming provides of bigotry and barbarity on the part of believers past and present, though he claims that "a philosophy should not be judged by its abuse," comparing it to the case of abuses performed by atheist despots. But there is, or should be from his point of view, a crucial consideration here. If Christianity and Christians are to be distinguished from all others as subscribing to the truth, as operating under the aegis of the one true God with all the benefits which ought to be accruing from such a state of affairs, then we should have the right to demand of them a standard of conduct and enlightenment that would set them apart. If Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of "the extremely successful Left Behind series [whose ideas their readers must find widely appealing], say that Christians 'look forward to the day when all non-Christians are thrown into a lake of fire, howling and screeching'," then these are indeed abhorrent outlooks which besmirch the Christian philosophy. Either they reflect adversely on the disposition of the Deity himself, or they indicate that having a pipeline to the true God does not prevent one from holding as bigoted and inhuman attitudes towards one's fellow man as anyone else. If the representatives of that Deity, whether priest, televangelist or faith healer, can regularly be found guilty of child abuse, avarice or fraud, then one can hardly tout Christianity as the one effective guide and guarantor of proper moral behavior.
Any philosophy, no matter what it may claim for itself in principle, is only as good as it works in practice. Christianity's track record gives us no reason to regard it as occupying a privileged position in regard to divine benefaction, and in that respect Licona's implication (if inadvertent) that we should regard it as part of a level playing-field is entirely correct.

The Question of Atheism

Which leads me to the subject of atheism, and Licona's treatment
—typical in his field—of those who decline to subscribe to the supernatural. If there is one thing we as atheists can truly be embittered about, it is the distortion and misguided prejudice atheism has suffered at the hands of the religious. Let's examine some of the garbled thought Licona presents to us; we'll take it apart piece by piece:

It is worth noting, however, that there is a major difference between showcasing Stalin as an example of an atheist and [Charles] Manson as an example of a Christian. Manson acted contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Thus, one cannot fault Jesus or Christianity for the misdeeds of charlatans and lunatics who misrepresent him. On the other hand, one cannot say that Stalin acted contrary to the teachings of atheism, since atheism has no moral teachings intrinsic to its worldview. But neither can one claim that Stalin acted in a manner inconsistent with atheism....

First of all, it repeatedly needs to be pointed out that atheism is simply the absence of belief in something, namely a God. It is, if you like, a rejection of the existence of God on the grounds that there is no, or  insufficient, evidence to support it. Certain corrollaries may arise from that rejection, but they are not inherent to atheism per se. Thus, it is entirely invalid for Licona to say that no one can claim that Stalin acted in a manner inconsistent with atheism. Or, turning that around to eliminate the double negative, it is invalid for anyone to say that Stalin acted in a manner consistent with atheism, since there is no causality involved; atheism itself is simply a rational decision made on the question of the existence of God. There is no necessary connection between such a decision and behavior of any kind, good or bad. One might as well say that driving while inebriated is consistent with owning a car, with the implication that ownership of a car is morally responsible for driving drunk. For Licona's claim to have any significance, we would have to say that owning a car gives one a disposition to drive drunk.

Licona's statement that "atheism has no moral teachings intrinsic to its worldview" is both accurate on one level, and nonsense on another. The rejection of a unsupportable Deity does not, of itself, involve a moral dimension; moral teachings are not intrinsic to it. On the other hand, atheists recognize that, in the absence of longstanding religious traditions, a different basis for ethical behavior must be formulated. And most of them proceed to do so; certainly, organized or activist atheism is just as concerned with ethics as any religious body
—even more so, since they must reason such things out for themselves rather than blindly accept the dictates of some petrified orthodoxy. Indeed, the requirements of living in a civilized society and preserving one's own survival and integrity within it, make it absolutely necessary. Atheists no more wish to see society degenerate into crime and chaos than religious people, and the constant accusation by the latter that we are willing to allow, or powerless to prevent, such a thing is libel of the most blind and bigoted sort.

The equation of atheism with degenerate or evaporating moral standards is one imposed by the religious mentality. For such an equation to be in any way legitimate would require it to be demonstrated that atheism makes people oblivious to or incapable of producing or living by an ethical code, and this is patently not the case. The jails are not full of atheists. Marriages made in heaven are not any more secure than those made on earth. Ecclesiastical despots have been just as capable of atrocities as atheist despots, and far more capable of an irrational basis on which to be guilty of such things. The medieval and Reformation churches were capable of executing women as witches because they "knew" that Satan existed and could take over women's bodies and souls. Galileo came within a hair of losing his head because the bible clearly indicated that the sun went around the earth, regardless of what the astronomer could see through his telescope. The Inquisition was justified because Jesus had said "Compel them to come in" (Luke 14:23) and declared that the only avenue to eternal salvation was through belief in himself
—and of course, it had to be correct belief.

Licona speaks of a distinction between atheism and religion, but he is overlooking the most critical one. Stalin's crimes related to his political ideology, not his atheistic one. On the other hand, Christian atrocities have been a direct product of the religious stance; they were committed in the name of religion. Stalin engineered the Ukrainian famine of 1929 which killed millions because the Ukrainian peasantry resisted his communistic reforms in regard to agriculture, not because they refused to embrace atheism. He purged his army in 1937 of virtually its entire High Command because in his growing paranoia he feared they were turning against him, not because of his or their religious beliefs or lack of them. In contrast, the persecution and slaughter of the Jews throughout the Middle Ages was done, by Church and Christian population alike, on the basis of religion, and the fantasy fostered by Christian tradition that the Jews were Christ-killers. Vicious and sanguinary religious wars were fought throughout Europe on the basis of sectarian differences between Christian nations and communities over interpretations of the bible and the authority of the Pope; crusades were launched against the infidel because they failed to follow the true faith and could not be left in control of the holy places.
Clearly, all these behaviors on the part of the religious community were made possible by (and were certainly consistent with) their religious beliefs; without them, they wouldn't have taken place. The same cannot be said of Stalinistic communism. The supposedly atheistic Pol Pot and his Kmer Rouge slaughtered the intelligentsia of Cambodia because he wanted to reduce the country to a radically simplistic communism; atheism played not even an incidental part. On the other hand, the ruthless ethnic cleansing of the New World (and the robbery of their gold) by the ultra-Catholic Spanish was justified by the heathen status of the conquered, making them unfit to deserve humane treatment by the soldiers and bishops of Christ.

Atheism has never possessed a dictum to slaughter the unbeliever, never a philosophy to regard him or her as an infidel or inferior human, never provided a divine commandment to coerce or subjugate, to break social ties, to await a fiery judgment of the impious. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of religion, regardless of its elevated moral claims and sanctimonious view of itself. Jesus, if he existed, may have said to love one another, or one's enemies
—though if he did, he was echoing those who had said it before him. But he was also reputed to have advocated compelling the non-believer to conversion, to have condemned to Hell those communities and individuals who failed to heed his message, to have urged his followers to take up the sword, and to hate one's father and mother (the repudiation of social commitments) in the interests of furthering the beliefs and goals of the sect. According to the Gospel of John, he declared the Jewish authorities to be sons of Satan. (If he also said on the cross, "Father, forgive them"as recorded only in Lukehis words failed to provide any inspiration for centuries of Christians to follow his example.) Christians throughout history have done as much evil as good by following some of the "teachings of Jesus," and very few of them can simply be dismissed as charlatans and lunatics. Thus Licona's claim that Christians who have committed atrocities are going "contrary" to the teachings of Jesus is a sham, and can only be supported by a very selective choice of the words found in Jesus' mouth in the Gospels.

Nor should we overlook the immense harm done by Jesus' healings through exorcism. It is astounding that so much investment is still placed in Jesus' miracles by Christians when so many of them embody the grossest and most primitive form of superstition one can imagine, namely the existence of demons and their imagined attacks on mental and physical health. The entire Middle Ages and even beyond suffered mightily through this portrayal of a subworld of evil spirits plaguing mankind, driving much of the lunacy and persecution Christians inflicted on themselves and others. In similar vein, the vengeful ravings of the book of Revelation, much of it involving the reputed words of a post-resurrection Jesus, has probably been responsible for more mental illness and psychotic behavior on the part of believers than any other single document ever produced. Religion breeds fanaticism, as we all know, and especially so when it uncritically surrenders itself to the words of a holy book which in great measure, Old and New, comprises the tales of the Deity's own ignorance, prejudices and atrocities.

I note that Licona leaves out any reference to Hitler and the Holocaust as examples of atheistic monsters and barbarity. (He admits in an endnote, "That Hitler was an atheist is debatable.") Can it be that apologists like himself have finally gotten the message that neither Hitler nor his political system was atheistic (regardless of whether his brand of religiosity was hardly orthodox)? Hitler was not put into power by an atheistic body of voters. He was not supported and abetted in his wars and his extermination of the Jews and others by a populace of atheists. The German SS High Command could go to church on Sundays (under the benign eye of the pulpit) and return on Monday morning to their engineering of the Final Solution and the slaughter of subhuman non-Aryans throughout the conquered territories. German soldiers wore "Gott mit uns" on their uniforms, and the anti-Semitic fanaticism that drove the Holocaust was inculcated into the German people by, among other things, a reading of their own bibles.

I am not the first to point all these things out, and it shouldn't be necessary to continually have to point them out, but it is not likely that the the religious or apologetic mentality will cease to make their slanderous and unsupportable appeals to the 'evils' of atheism in contrast with the righteousness of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

The Question of Objectivity

Licona's position is rendered even more untenable by his confusion over the concept of "objective" morality. Following on the above quote from his critique, he had this to say:

...Those atheists who still claim to believe in objective morality simply fail to grasp the meaning of the word "objective." By "objective," I mean that something is morally right or wrong irrespective of the opinion of a person or society. This is not an argument for the objectivity of morals. Rather it is to say that if atheism is true, morals are not objective. The only standards are those set by individuals or societies. People can choose to abide by those standards or endure the consequences imposed by the society in which they live if they are caught breaking those standards. Individuals can vary significantly in their moral standards. But in a godless reality, no one is obligated to abide by the moral values of another individual....

What does it mean to say that something is "objective"? While the standard definition goes something like, "not influenced by personal feeling or prejudice," the word refers to the nature of our judgment about something, how knowledge about it is arrived at. This judgment and knowledge is considered independent of any individual's opinion or bias, and it is verifiable through some common, acceptable standard which is also independent of anyone's individual
—or "subjective"—opinion or bias. Geometry is objective because it is provable by logic and demonstration, based on axioms that everyone can see are correct. Scientific conclusions can be arrived at in the laboratory or any field of critical investigation because we use devices and methods which can be examined for their reliability, and which moreover can give us the same results each time, predictable on the basis of previous observation and experiment. The laws of nature and the scientific method generally prove consistent, regardless of the beholder.

But where are the devices and methods for proving the objectivity, reliability and permanence of anyone's moral code? They don't exist, at least in a scientific sense. Licona says, "By 'objective,' I mean that something is morally right or wrong irrespective of the opinion of a person or society." But how do we recognize a moral code as conforming to this principle? It cannot be proven by mathematical demonstration; it cannot be supported in the laboratory. "Right and wrong" have to be arrived at by someone's moral standard, by someone's judgment. Of course, we all know Licona's answer. They are arrived at by God. The proper moral code is "objective" because God has declared it. That is Licona's definition of "objective"
—a self-serving travesty of the word. Because, of course, this kind of objectivity is anything but free of the opinion of a person or society. First of all, he would not accept the declaration of a Hindu god as objective, or the ancient Amon-Re of Egypt, or the gods of Easter Island. And I don't think he would regard the moral compass of Osama bin Laden as the "objective" Koran. So his definition of "objective" becomes even more narrowly focused: "the declarations of the God of the Jews and Christians as found in the Bible." Hardly a universal standard, verifiable by devices and methods which can prove their divine source, their reliability and permanence to all people at all times. Indeed, Licona has to rely on faith that the bible represents the word and wishes of an existent God, which is about as far from objectivity as one can get.

If appeal is made to the idea that the reasoning mind can see the 'obvious' valid nature of such commands as "thou shalt not kill" or "thou shalt not steal," then we don't need the bible or God himself to declare them to be so. Atheists thus become as capable as anyone of arriving at and adopting moral standards on a reasoning basis. If, on the other hand, we cannot rely on them through our own rational processes to be valid and worthy of following, if God has not derived these laws from principles that lie outside or independent of himself, then it becomes a question of God's arbitrary whim as to what he is going to make right and wrong; this is also anything but "objective." Indeed, moral laws in this case become entirely subjective
—on the part of God himself. If there are no truly objective and independent moral standards adoptable through our own reasoning processes, then we live in a pretty scary universe. This does not mean that the physical universe itself embodies such moral standards, as though "written in the stars." It does not. But to the extent that we ourselves, the human brain and its capacities, are the universe's product through evolution, any moral standards we arrive at on our own through rational judgment as to what is desirable and beneficial (and thus "good") for our own welfare and progress become "objective"—as objective as anything of a non-physical nature can be.

Licona's morality is on even shakier ground if he is going to claim that the process by which he thinks to know God's wishes is in any way reliable or objective. For, of course, the voice of God does not speak to us directly. We have no verifiable knowledge of what God wants. All we know is what some unknown writers, priests and prophets wanted, allegedly speaking as the voice of the God of the Hebrews, some 2500 to 3000 years ago. (The same goes for the 'record' of the alleged teachings of Jesus.) Those writers lived in a scientifically and intellectually primitive and
—certainly by our standards—unenlightened age, which is not to say that they may not have managed to get a few basic things 'right.' Licona complains that without God, the only standards are those set by individuals or societies, but in the absence of God's own voice, the standards are being set precisely by "individuals and societies" who claim that they are the ones who know how to interpret such and such a piece of ancient writing—and such societies (read religious sects) have universally demonstrated an abysmal lack of rationality, objectivity, tolerance and compassion, not to mention concern for issues like human rights.

If the only standard available is the God of the written bible, what are we to make of all the truly objectionable and clearly subjective (not to mention contradictory) things we find in that conglomeration of documents, things which would offend the sensibilities of many people today, both believers and atheists? Various passages in the Old Testament give us God's own exemplary directives to slaughter one's enemies, including women, children and the foetus in the womb, usually for the purpose of gaining more lebensraum. Destroying all life except for one family and a pair of each species hardly bespeaks mercy and self-control. But no better example exists of the difficulties involved in arriving at a biblical morality than the various elements found in the Book of Leviticus. We can start with the passage quoted probably more often than any other in the Old Testament by modern fundamentalists (which speaks volumes in itself): the rabid condemnation of homosexuality in 18:22. Yet how can we accept this as the eternal word of God and "objective" morality in the face of modern medical science and psychology which has identified the gay expression as inherent in nature, including human nature? It is not an aberration (even if due to chance pre-natal factors), but a naturally occurring phenomenon in a minority of the population. Does God not recognize this in his own creation? Apparently not. God apparently has some other strange and subjective ideas as well, at least to our modern minds. Leviticus 18:19 forbids sexual relations during a woman's menstruation. Why isn't that piece of objective morality championed by fundamentalists with equal adamance? 19:13 declares it a law of God that the employer "not keep back a hired man's wages until the next morning." Should the religious community not be agitating for daily paychecks? In 19:19, we are forbidden by God's objective morality to "put on a garment woven with two kinds of material." Where are the evangelical protest marches against the makers of polyester or acrylic and wool sweaters? As for the bulk of Leviticus' priestly concerns, it is apparently an objective requirement of God that animals be sacrificed to him in a unending stream of blood and smoke. If the Lord has changed his mind on that particular predilection, or outgrown such primitive needs, how does this differ from the great bugaboo of "moral relativism"? How can we label God's laws as anything but subjective and lacking in permanence?

By any standard, Licona's "objectivity" has evaporated into the wind. He speaks of the "obligation" to act morally. If that obligation is not determined by rational judgment and our own acquired wisdom, by the need to craft and maintain a safe and civilized society and create the greatest happiness and well-being for as many as possible, then we are simply acting like puppets, surrendering our own intellects and moral instincts, terrified of the whims and reprisals of an irresponsible God. If all that is really left of Licona's championing of traditional biblical ethics is the fear of horrific punishment to keep us in line, this does nothing to develop humanity's own wisdom or sense of self-worth, it hones no abilities to be intrinsically moral or to perceive the reasons and advantages to developing that capacity. Atheism very much requires and prompts the development of a moral code; it is one of those "corrollaries" I spoke of attendant upon the rejection of the existence of God. And if God's own example in the bible is anything to judge by, it will achieve a far greater degree of objectivity, rationality and permanence than anything the religious mind has yet produced. The ability to create and apply a moral code is, if nothing else, a survival mechanism, and evolution has proven itself extremely capable of producing such things.

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--  II  --

After this introduction on morality, Licona moves to the body of his critique, addressing the debate over the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels. What he has to say is full of defective reasoning, and what I would call shallow argumentation, in that in contesting some aspect of the opposing position, he appeals to some minor or incidental point (often misunderstood or misrepresented) relating to the issue under debate, and then declares that this destroys the opponent's case. His critique is a long one, and deals with statements in The God Who Wasn't There by Flemming, myself, Richard Carrier, Robert Price and others. While I will address in detail most of what he says about the Jesus Myth theory, I will make only the occasional passing comment on what he has to say about others' contributions, leaving it to them to respond more fully themselves, if they so wish.

The Gospels and Paul

Licona starts by addressing the claim, as stated by Flemming, that there is a gap of at least 40 years, probably more, between Jesus' alleged life and the recording of that life in the Gospels, and that all of the later Gospels essentially derive from Mark. He declares this "far from the truth." But what makes the truth "far" from this statement? He says,

Although it is granted by most scholars that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources, they had other sources as well. The hypothetical "Q" source which Doherty acknowledges may be one of those sources. Luke reported that many had written accounts of what Jesus said and did before he wrote his Gospel (Luke 1:1)....

Considering that Licona points out in a endnote that "a number of scholars are now questioning whether Q existed," it would seem he is offering such a source (which I do believe existed) only tentatively, and nowhere in his critique does he further address Q or its content to see how well it might provide us with a secure source for Jesus, particularly in the area of biography rather than simply imputed sayings. His use of Luke's Prologue is rather naive, in that he fails to consider the possibility that this is a later addition, especially as prior to the Gospels known as Matthew and Luke, we possess no document outlining anything pertaining to the Gospel story other than the Gospel of Mark. This should lead to suspicion about the early authenticity of the Prologue, with its statement that "many writers have undertaken to draw up an account of the events that have happened among us..." This, along with the next words, "...following the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses," suggests both the passage of time and points to a period, such as well into the second century, when "many writer's accounts" would indeed have been available. I would also take the opportunity to point out that the writer of the Prologue makes no mention of his own identity, or any personal link to important figures involved in Christianity's beginnings. This omission severely weakens the claim that the author of this Gospel is Luke, companion of Paul, since such an author would have had every reason to identify himself in light of what he is saying in the Prologue itself. And in the case that this is a later editor's addition to an existing Gospel of Luke, it also indicates that at the time of such editing, there was no circulating tradition that "Luke" had been its author, else the editor would certainly have made such an identification.

Licona goes on:

Regarding John's use of Mark, the prominent New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes that

"probably most (but by no means all) scholars nowadays hold that the author(s) of John (at least at the earliest stage of the process that led to our present text) either did not know of, and refer to, any of the Synoptic Gospels or, at the least, did not use them as sources in the way the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark (and Q)."

Moreover, most of today's scholars believe that much of the tradition in John is from one of Jesus' disciples, although there is no consensus about who that disciple was. Many believe the author was the apostle John or a minor disciple who traveled with Jesus but was not one of the twelve.

I do not know Larry Furtado first-hand (though I'll have more to say about his reported views later), but he at least betrays some liberal elements in regard to John in the above quote, which is in marked contrast to Licona's own follow-up statement. As I said earlier, Licona has a habit of appealing to "most of today's scholars" when he is really referring to the most conservative circles among them. Other than his appeal (to be discussed later) to various scholars and historians who have rejected the idea that Jesus never existed, the most 'critical' scholar he draws on seems to be the late Raymond E. Brown, and although Brown commands well-merited respect, he is anything but a liberal. Most of Licona's authorities are at the level of Craig Blomberg, whom he cites in an endnote here as supporting the "Johannine authorship" (that is, the apostle John, son of Zebedee) of the Fourth Gospel. There is hardly a "critical" scholar today worthy of that description who would state this with any degree of confidence, or even countenance it at all. And none of them would go so far as to consider that the content of John, especially the teachings, was the product of eyewitness or the authentic voice of Jesus. The type of authority Licona relies on rises no higher into the critical stratosphere than those interviewed by Lee Strobel in his The Case for Christ, and I am not the only one to point out the ultra-conservative nature of Strobel's body of New Testament scholars.

Licona goes on to make a completely unsupportable statement:

Some details in John (e.g., Jesus' arrest & trial) actually cohere better with known historical conditions and are not related to John's theology...

If there is one thing critical scholars are agreed upon, it is that John's content is almost entirely determined by theological considerations. Prominent among these is the equation of Jesus with the paschal lamb, his identification of him as such. To that end, he has changed the very day of the crucifixion from that of the Synoptics so that Jesus' death on the cross coincides with the slaughter of the lambs in the Temple on Passover eve, rather than the first day of Passover itself. Paschal Lamb imagery is used throughout the entire Gospel, and features of the story and the teachings placed in Jesus' mouth are altered to fit such theological interests. He introduces, alone among all the evangelists, the piercing of Jesus' side by the Roman soldier in order to conform to a perceived prophecy that "no bone [of the lamb] shall be broken." I am not sure what Licona has in mind in his reference to details particularly in John's arrest and trial as "coher[ing] to known historical conditions," but it is precisely events in those final scenes of Jesus' life as presented by John which lead critical scholars to see Johannine dependence on the synoptics. He fashions the basic structure of the whole business just as they do, and it is telling that he employs the same literary structure of "intercalation" first introduced by Mark (it is one of Mark's common fingerprints) in the denial by Peter scene. After Jesus' arrest, Peter is brought into the High Priest's courtyard to set up the scene, then both authors cut away to the scene of Jesus' questioning by the Sanhedrin, then come back to complete the scene of Peter's denial. (Luke is the one evangelist who does not bother to follow Mark's lead here.) John also introduces a number of "fine-tuning" elements over the Synoptic precedents: he further clarifies the role of Joseph of Arimathea and the burial of Jesus; he introduces Jesus' mother to the crucifixion itself where no other record does so; he gives us an entire philosophical discussion between Jesus and Pilate where the other evangelists have Jesus saying almost nothing (in keeping with other biblical 'prophecies'). It is hardly likely that John would be privy to all these fuller traditions, sometimes in contradiction to the other Gospels, while the remaining evangelists were not; rather they make best sense as his own amendments and additions in keeping with his own purposes. (Those changes involve the astonishing elimination of the establishment of the Eucharist at the final meal, and the complete excision of Gethsemane!) The dramatic difference between Jesus' teachings in John and those of the rest of the Gospels is inexplicable unless the former are simply the product of the Johannine community, imposed on the synoptic story line. None of this gives us any confidence that John is working either from history, or independently of the synoptic writers. Conservative scholarship is rightly perplexed as to who in Jesus' circles could possibly have been "witness" to such divergence in tradition, and we can see the figure of the "beloved disciple" as an invention of the author of John to provide his community with its own link back to Jesus himself.

Flemming's whole point, and my own, is that if there is so much evidence of literary connection between the various evangelists, with all of the essentials (especially the biographical ones) going back to a single original author, namely Mark, the historicity of any of it is thrown into serious doubt. If none of the elements of the story can be found in the wider non-Gospel documents of the first century (we can talk about Acts later), if there is no trace of the wealth of diverse traditions about Jesus and his lifenot just the Gospel way of presenting themwhich ought to have been saturating the Christian communities of the time, the actuality of a Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the Gospels rests on very shaky ground. Again, there is nothing "hyper" about this skepticism. It is a simple and natural proposition justified by the record itself.

For Johannine dependence on the Synoptics, I recommend Robert Price's The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. Many of the points he makes relating to this can be found in my review of that book on this website. Price's observations ought to resolve the "no consensus" (Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.239) situation among scholars in regard to the source of John's passion story.

Licona objects to my "radical" dating of the Gospels: an 85-90 approximation for Mark and the rest by around 125. This is certainly not radical by the standards of truly radical scholarship (which is a wide phenomenon today, and not just among Jesus mythicists) in regard to dating. Licona points to the view of "nearly all modern scholars" as holding to the traditional dating of Mark around 70 and the rest by the end of the century. But that's just what it is: a scholarly tradition, virtually a bandwagon effect. It is based on very little, and is open to contention as much as any other opinion in this field. It is certainly not based on attestation, since clear attestation of any of the Gospels does not exist much before the middle of the second century. The 'early-as-possible' dating of the P52 fragment of John is self-serving and cannot be guaranteed before 150. Critical scholars such as Helmut Koester acknowledge that Gospel-sounding elements in turn-of-century writings like the Didache or the letters of Ignatius are more likely to come from oral tradition and not written Gospels, and there is other evidence in such writings to indicate that their authors do not know any written Gospel.

Dating the Gospel of Mark to 70 or shortly after is based almost entirely on Jesus' apocalyptic prediction of the Temple's destruction in Mark 13 and its versions in the other Synoptics. But I have pointed out indicators in the passage itself which suggest otherwise, including Jesus' own words which seem to be formulated to allow for some time to have passed after the destruction of the Temple. Many of the conditions alluded to are compatible, sometimes better so, with my later date than the traditional one. These arguments are laid out in The Jesus Puzzle, p.194-5, and I won't detail them here.

Licona makes an appeal to our reliance on the histories of many famous figures in the ancient world having been written far longer after the lives of those figures than the Gospels were written after Jesus, even assuming a later dating than the traditional one. This is a common argument, but basically irrelevant. We have to examine each individual case on its own merits, as to the reliability of the writers, our knowledge about them and their circumstances, the nature of their writings. There is no comparison between sober-minded historians like Diodorus, Plutarch and Arrian writing on Alexander the Great and four unknown authors recounting a miracle-working man-god forecasting the end of the world who redact and contradict each other while writing on an otherwise unattested human figure—much less the Son of God—some three-quarters of a century after the 'fact'.

In answer to Flemming's statement that the letters of Paul are virtually all we have of the history of Christianity beween Jesus and the Gospels, Licona points to Acts:

The book of Acts is usually dated to have been written between AD 61-85. Even if we date Acts on the outer end, we have a document that is a history of the Church between AD 30-61. That is, it was written only 25-55 years after the events it purports to describe, given the outer limits of a critical dating.

The year 85 is hardly the limit of the critical dating of Acts. Several scholars (John Knox, Burton Mack, J. C. O'Neill, J. T. Townsend) place it well into the second century, and I have presented arguments in The Jesus Puzzle (p.269-71) for regarding it as the product of the Roman church to counter 'heretical' views, especially about Paul, during the Marcionite period. As in the case of the Gospels, the early dating of Acts is hardly based on attestation. There is none for this document before the year 170. That such an account of the early Church could have existed for a century and be drawn on by not a single Christian writer is simply inconceivable. As for some of the arguments apologists make for dating Acts to 62, prior to Paul's death since no mention is made of it, I'll quote from my response to Lee Strobel in Challenging the Verdict (p.18-19) as an example of a type of common sense thinking that needs to be brought more often to the claims made in this field:

Well, I have to say, Dr. Blomberg, that this is a pretty shaky line of deduction, since it’s based on a very uncertain starting premise. There could be any number of reasons why the author of Acts chose to end his book where he did. For example, it has been suggested that Acts’ plot line is symbolic of the faith’s early expansion from Jerusalem to Rome, from a Jewish beginning to a gentile culmination, so the author may well have wanted to avoid ending on a negative note. That symbolic progression would have been somewhat compromised by having Paul get his head chopped off.
It also strikes me as a little naïve to assume that Luke just happened to write his work in that narrow time span after Paul’s arrival in Rome but before he met his fate....I could add that much of Acts contradicts the information supplied by Paul himself in his letters, and thus it is highly unlikely that this document could have been written in the lifetime of Paul. If Acts was indeed written by Paul’s “beloved physician,” how could he have gotten so many things wrong? If it was not, and yet was still written before 62, the author would have been forced to go directly to Paul for much of his information, since traditions about Paul’s movements and experiences would hardly have been circulating so soon.
     For example, Acts portrays Paul on his conversion as immediately subordinating himself to the apostles in Jerusalem, but the epistles show him operating quite independently and in occasional conflict with them; he fails even to contact them for three years. The so-called Apostolic Conference in Acts 15 has Paul and the apostles in Jerusalem coming to an agreement on the question of gentile observance of the Jewish Law, yet in Galatians 2 these issues are still unresolved after that meeting. And so on.

Licona refers to the "early kerygma" involving stories of an historical Jesus, but this is simply an appeal to Acts. We have no secure reason for dating Acts so early, or for relying on it to contain accurate historical information. Since there are obvious tendential features of Acts' portrayal (as in Paul cooperating entirely with the Jerusalem apostles, in clear contradiction to his own letters), since dramatic elements like the Pentecost experience and the martyrdom of Stephen are nowhere to be found in the rest of the early Christian record, since all the speeches are from the same authorial hand and lack virtually all of the high Christology found in the early epistles, and for many other reasons, Acts must be rejected as providing anything that can be reliably used to verify claims about the early nature of Christianity or an historical Jesus.

Besides relying on the unreliable, Licona is not above arguing using various fallacious mechanisms, one of which is begging the question.

Contrary to Flemming, there are a number of reasons for believing that Paul was familiar with the historical Jesus. First, since Paul was a committed Jew, he would have been in Jerusalem during the Passover as Jesus would have been. Thus, there is a good possibility that both Jesus and Paul were in Jerusalem at the same time and that Paul even heard Jesus teach. Second, Paul declares that he opposed the Church to the point of persecuting its believers. Acts reports that Paul had heard the testimony of Stephen about Jesus just before Stephen was martyred. And surely others, both the persecuted and the persecutors, would have shared information about the historical Jesus with Paul.

This happens so often, and not only from Licona, that one really has to assume that such debaters do not understand the principle of begging the question. Flemming has made the statement that "Paul doesn't believe that Jesus was ever a human being. He's not even aware of the idea." He bases this on the fact (or claim, if you like, since it can be—and has beenchallenged) that within the catalogue of Paul's own words we receive no statement or indication that Paul regards Jesus as someone who was a recent human being on earth. In other words, this is a conclusion, accurate or otherwise, drawn first-hand from the primary evidence itself. To 'disprove' this, Licona points to various considerations which amount to begging the question: that is, he draws alleged deductions from other ideas which entail the assumption itself of the very issue in question.

That is, in answer to the statement that Paul's words present no knowledge of an historical Jesus, Licona says that Paul was likely in Jerusalem at Passover and could thus have bumped into Jesus at the time of the events surrounding the passion. There is, of course, no statement or evidence anywhere that this actually happened, but this assumes the existence of Jesus and his presence in Jerusalem at the time of an historically true Gospel story. Licona is using this assumption (which is the question under debate) to help 'disprove' that very question as stated by Flemming. It is even more blatant and obvious when Licona argues that Flemming's statement is wrong, that Paul would have known about an historical Jesus, because certain people would have shared information about the historical Jesus with Paul! The latter is again, an assumption, based on nothing evidentiary. While Flemming's statement is based on direct evidence, that is, the interpretation of Paul's words and silence in the epistles, Licona thinks to counter that with a presumption, not only not based on any direct evidence (since no one records, including Paul himself, that he was told by anyone about an historical Jesus), but on something that relies on Flemming's statement being a priori wrong. He is trying to prove something wrong by essentially stating it as being wrong. That's begging the question, a blatant case of it, and it's a logical fallacy. Too many people like Licona can't recognize that, and we'll see more examples of it as we go along. (Bishop Spong, despite being an intelligent and critical scholar, was guilty of precisely this kind of question begging in recent correspondence: see my response to Gordon in Reader Feedback 25.)

If Flemming had simply stated that Paul would have had no chance to know, or know about, an historical Jesus, then Licona's arguments would have been legitimate. They would simply have provided arguments for that "chance to know." They do not provide counter evidence for the deduction drawn from Paul's letters that he in fact did not know or know of an historical Jesus.

Licona goes on:

Third, Paul wrote: "We have known Christ according to the flesh" (2 Corinthians 5:16). This seems to imply that he had some knowledge of Jesus' earthly life.

This is a perennial favorite, but as certain translations (like the NEB, which translates kata sarka as "worldly standards") and certain scholars (like C. K. Barrett, see his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p.170, as detailed in endnote 14 of The Jesus Puzzle) have shown, the "according to the flesh" modifies "have known" and not "Christ." It describes the disposition of the believers, not the nature of Christ.

Fourth, on three occasions in Paul's letters he shows that he is familiar with the sayings of Jesus (1 Cor 7:10; 9:14; 11:1, 2, 20-25)....

What Licona is not familiar with is mainstream scholarship's concept of "words of the Lord," the practice of Christian prophets like Paul declaring that they have received and are delivering pronouncements of Christ from heaven (in the same way that "John" receives and passes on the words of Jesus in the book of Revelation). Licona's "sayings of Jesus" as delivered by Paul fall naturally into that category, especially as he never speaks of Jesus as a human teacher, and seems ignorant of teachings far more important than the paltry directives about divorce and reimbursing apostles. (See also The Jesus Puzzle, p.29-30 for other indicators of this interpretation.) In 1 Thess. 4:9 he declares that the one who has taught us to love one another is God himself, not Jesus. As for 1 Corinthians 11:23f, we will revisit that later, but Paul's declaration in verse 23 that he got this information "from the Lord himself" indicates he is speaking of a personal revelation from Jesus to him, and not anything known through historical tradition.

Sixth, Paul reports that he went to Jerusalem to visit Peter. The word he uses for visit in Greek is historēsai, from which we derive the English word history. Thus, as many scholars have noted, during Paul's first visit with the apostles as a new believer, he is certain to have asked them for details about the Lord he now served, details of both his earthly life and his teachings, the same information each of us would be interested in if we were now in Paul's place....

"He is certain to have asked them..." More question-begging of the sort discussed above. And if Paul is "certain" to have been interested in such details, why do they never appear in his letters? If his listeners and converts were certain to have been equally interested, why does he never give them any, even in situations were such references would be pertinent? I have no doubt that, in some other context, Licona has equally argued that Paul doesn't mention such details because he wasn't interested in them, which is a common 'explanation' for Paul's silence found throughout apologetic, and even mainstream, debate on this point.

As for historēsai, Licona is drawing a page from Lee Strobel, his interview of Gary Habermas in The Case for Christ (p.229). I'll reply as I did in Challenging the Verdict (p.196):

The problem is, Dr. Habermas, that you have given a debatable interpretation even of this single word. You’ll note that even the NIV, the translation I just gave of the Galatians verse, does not bear you out. There, historeo is rendered in its usual meaning, that Paul is simply going to Jerusalem to “get acquainted with” Peter, not to investigate him or anything else. Bauer’s Lexicon defines the verb this way: “To visit for the purpose of coming to know someone or something.” The Analytical Greek Lexicon gives: “to visit in order to become acquainted with,” and points to Galatians 1:18. Since Peter is in the accusative case, this makes him the object of the ‘visit for acquaintance.’ If this were a formal investigative inquiry, as you put it, one might expect the object quoted would be Jesus, the doctrine, the creed, the tradition, or whatever.
     On the other hand, Bauer does quote a scholar who reads the verb in this case as meaning ‘to get information from,
and that is certainly one of the meanings the Greek word can have, though translators rarely choose it. So perhaps we can allow for a certain amount of leeway in that direction. The question is, what sort of information might Paul have been seeking? How the Jerusalem group formulated their gospel? In what parts of the country they were active? Whether they might agree or disagree with Paul’s view of the Law? Peter’s preference in travelling suits? It could have been anything. Since Paul gives us nothing remotely concrete about the matter, and never says that he got information on the faith from anyone, we are not entitled to simply read what we would like into the situation and presume this as evidence for the position we wish to advocate.

Licona's other few points involve a "may indicate" and a "could have been" and (in a quote from Paul Barnett) even a "There can be no doubt that..." Unfortunately, this is the sort of argumentation that the anti-mythicist position too often is forced to have recourse to, unbacked by any evidence.

In the matter of the Lord's Supper, Licona says that Flemming's claim that Paul "never quotes anything that Jesus is supposed to have said," is easily debunked, pointing to 1 Corinthians 11:24. "Paul is obviously aware of the Jesus tradition known by the Evangelists (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19)." As I pointed out, it is anything but obvious, since Paul says he got these words "from the Lord himself." Paul would hardly make such a claim of personal revelation if such words and traditions were circulating in oral transmission based on knowledge of an historical event. He'd look like a bit of an ass. (The perennial apologetic argument based on apo vs. para has been shown to be invalid, as in practice these two prepositions were interchangeable.) Once this is realized, we have to ask is this Paul's perceived revelation about a mythical event, along the lines of the sacred meals of other savior-god cults? We might also ask whether the Gospel rendition of this meal and these words are ultimately based on such a mythical tradition, whether from Paul or some other source.

Paul is familiar with Pilate and John the Baptist in his speech in Acts 13:25,28....

But only if we can depend on Acts being reliable as history, which I have shown we cannot, much less that this or that speech in it represents words actually spoken by the person into whose mouth they have been put. There is certainly no mention of either of these figures in Paul's own lettersor in any other non-Gospel writing of the first century. (They do occur for the first time in Ignatius in the early second century; and Pilate is given passing mention in 1 Timothy 6:13, which is one reason why conservatives are very anxious to try to discredit the mainstream judgment that the Pastorals are second century forgeries written in Paul's name. And no critical scholar would agree with Colin Hemer who Licona reports "argues that the speeches in Acts are probably summaries of what certain apostles taught on a specific occasion." "Probably" means wishful thinking, since there is no evidence that such is the case.)

As for another perennial bone of contention, Galatians 1:19 with its reference to James as "the brother of the Lord," this has been done to death. While Flemming does not in his DVD, I have certainly provided much in the way of evidence and argument to support the thesis that the word "brother" does not refer to a sibling here, but to a believer and follower of Christ, which is the way the word is consistently used throughout the epistles as applied to all sorts of people. (See my Response to Gerry in Reader Feedback 22.) It naturally does not fit well, as Licona points out, with the Gospel 'report' that Jesus had brothers, including a James, but the latter evidence cannot be used to determine the meaning in the epistles, since this is the very issue under contention: what does Paul's reference in Galatians mean, if there is no evidence from him or his contemporaries, and much against it, that their "James" was the sibling of a human Jesus? The Gospel linkage could very well be based on traditions of a group of apostles, and their leader, who were called by this term many decades earlier, now misunderstood or simply adapted to the new story. Then there is always the possibility that the phrase began as a marginal gloss by some later scribe, to identify the James Paul had spoken of according to that scribe's understanding. (On 1 Timothy 6:13, see also the Appendix to my Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)

Comparing Jesus to the Mystery Cult Deities

Licona gives us an excerpt from Flemming's DVD interview with Robert Price, in which Price compares an actual historical figure like Caesar Augustus around whom legends collected but who is securely locked into history, and Jesus, so many of whose stories cannot be so locked but are instead scripturally derived or are outrageously improbable. Licona answers this in a somewhat haphazard fashion, and I will simply comment on a few of his points here. Price has referred to Herod's slaughter of the innocents (in the Matthew nativity story), and while Licona declines to offer a detailed refutation of the denial of such an event, it is clear that he accepts it as historical, which identifies where he stands on the 'critical' spectrum. Moreover, he then goes on to provide one defense of sorts, appealing to Lee Strobel's rationalization for why the event does not appear in Josephus or anywhere else, namely that, well, Bethelehem was a small place and Herod's action would only have involved a few infants in a small village in an unpopular section of the Roman Empire and would it really have caught the attention of a number of ancient historians? As I said in response to Strobel, Bethlehem was only six miles from Jerusalem, which is hardly backwater. Would Josephus (is he an historian for whom Judea would have been unpopular?), who meticulously recorded the atrocities of Herod's rule, have regarded such a barbarous act, despite the alleged small numbers involved, as unimportant to mention? Licona further offers, "we should not be surprised if only one source reports it, in this case Matthew." I don't know why not. Matthew was not an historian, let alone a contemporary, and the incident is part of a passage which seeks to give Jesus a wondrous birth account; the slaughter element is clearly a reworking of an identical biblical precedent pertaining to Moses (as well as of non-biblical similar legends attached to other ancient rulers like Sargon). For Licona to defend it as historical is little short of ludicrous. We might well ask if he finds it unsurprising that only one source, namely Matthew, records the entire business of the visitation of the magi, the slaughter, the flight into Egypt, while another Christian source, namely Luke, has a nativity tale that entirely lacks such things and has its own incidents based on scriptural inspiration?

Licona makes a brief foray into the field of conservative scholarship's regular attempt to discredit the ties between Jesus and the mystery deities. Martin Hengel is quoted as pointing out how pagan gods who died violent deaths differed from Christian reports about Jesus, and that crucified gods "can be tormented for a while, but can never die." One part of this position seems to contradict the other; and Hengel cannot be referring to Osiris, Attis or Adonis, among others, who definitely died, in quite bloody fashion. The appeal to Hengel is further garbled (whether due to Hengel or simply Licona himself) by going on to mention "Greek heroes" who cannot be allowed to suffer a painful and shameful death like crucifixion, but are rescued at the last minute. This is mixing, or confusing, savior-god mythology with Hellenistic romance plots, and neither serves to demonstrate that Jesus could not belong to either or both categories as portrayed by the Gospel writers. Nor does it discredit the point Price is making, that so much of what is attributed to Jesus is fundamentally of a mythical or fictional cast, and historically improbable in nature.

Licona refers to the oft-claimed difference between the Gospels and the savior-god myths, namely that

the resurrection of Jesus is not reported to have taken place in the gray and distant past. Rather, it was linked (1) to the time of Tiberius and Pilate, (2) to a specific location: Jerusalem within Judea, and (3) to numerous eyewitnesses who were still alive, including Jesus' own family members. That the Jesus of whom Paul spoke is a contemporary rather than a mythic figure from an unspecified time in the past could not have been any clearer.

By now, I don't need to point out that this is more question begging. Licona's three points are precisely what we do not find in Paul, who never links Jesus' death to any specific time or location (without us lassoing 1 Timothy into Paul's corral), whose "eyewitnesses" are simply to visionary experiences (like his own) of a scripturally-revealed dying and rising savior—but that's a matter in regard to 1 Corinthians 15 which I won't go into here. It is the Gospels, and the Gospels alone during the first century, that make such a placement in time and location, and if the traditional myths of the mysteries are placed in a primordial past, it is because they were of ancient provenance, whereas Christ belief of the Pauline sort was of recent vintage. When it eventually became historicized in the Gospels, Mark would have had no reason to set his savior in a distant past. It would have been very reasonable to tie him to more recent history, especially as this would have coincided with the time of the earliest, by now legendary, apostles of the Christ like Peter and Paul. It would still have been sufficiently displaced by time and war so as not to interfere with any question of veracity or verifiability—if indeed Mark was concerned over such things. If his original tale was meant only as allegory, or a fictional rendition of someone he might possibly have regarded as historical, then he would not have been.

Too many of the arguments made by those who would discredit the commonality between the Christian and pagan versions of intermediary Son religious philosophy ironically do not take into account the fact that there are unique factors involved in the Christian manifestation, but that these differences do not have to spell any fundamental difference in historical quality between the two expressions. In that regard, I will jump ahead in Licona's critique to deal further with the mystery deities.

In a section he calls "Parallelmania" Licona engages in several pages of rebuttal to the common observation that many of the elements in the myths of the pagan savior gods find close parallel in the story of Jesus. Now, the whole question of these parallels is certainly a thorny one. The scholarly work of finding such correspondences between Jesus and figures like Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz, etc., is an old one, beginning in the late 1700s. Its heyday was in the 19th and early 20th century and to some extent it has fallen into disrepute; certainly no major scholars over the last half century have undertaken a significant review of the primary sources on which such parallels were based. Those primary sources are also part of the problem. As I said in my book review of Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ:

Modern skeptics of the field of comparative religion, with its claims of close correspondence between the elements of the Jesus story and a multitude of precurors in the mystery and salvation religions of the era, may have a case of sorts to make when they dismiss such parallels as being often unclear, exaggerated or unfounded. The primary sources for such things are a wide and uncoordinated array of texts and fragments of texts, artifacts, frescoes, uncertain records of oral traditions and rituals, excavated temples and places of worship (some ruined by Christian depredations), many requiring interpretation and a careful gleaning of their significance. There have no doubt been parallels suggested, or even declared with confidence, between Jesus and this or that 'savior god' in ancient cultures, which rest on shaky ground or have turned out to be erroneous. Christian apologists are ever at pains to point out these uncertainties and errors. But a few overstated claims and an inevitable degree of ambiguity where some features are concerned does not destroy the entire case, and serves only to provide some handy red herrings for determined apologists. The overall picture is not significantly compromised and is indeed beyond question. There are enough common features between Jesus and antecedent savior figures and their mythologies to make the principle valid. The story of Jesus is not original, much less historical. It owes its life blood—and many of the moles on its skin—to mythical motifs and far more ancient ideas that are found not only throughout the Near East but literally around the world, often in cultures that had no direct contact with those now familiar to us, making such expression endemic (some might say 'epidemic') to the human mind....

Again, Licona claims that "most scholars" have abandoned the History of Religions School that regarded parallels as conclusive sign that Christianity was cut from the same cloth as ancient myth. Well, it's not a case of having "abandoned" it so much as making a concerted effort to discredit it, for reasons that are quite obvious. Orthodox scholars have long recognized the danger presented in the picture of a Christian genesis out of pagan salvation religion, and have done their best to squelch it. I have encountered no better debunking of this very biased (and even dishonest) campaign than that of Robert Price in his Deconstructing Jesus. As I say in my website review of that book:

Jonathan Z. Smith ("Dying and Rising Gods" in Encyclopedia of Religion) and Gunter Wagner (Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries) are only two of many offenders who have naively or arrogantly twisted, misread and misrepresented the Greek mysteries and Pauline Christianity in order to divorce Jesus from his fellow cultic saviors: Dionysos, Attis, Osiris & Co. No one can read these pages [88-91] and ever again allow such special pleading tactics any credence.

Licona appeals to several timeworn arguments against the principle of parallels:

Further research has revealed that many of the parallels to which they [the History of Religions school] refer postdate the Gospels. Thus, it is most likely that those parallels were the result of other religions who copied the Christian story rather than the other way around. Second, no examples cited exhibit all of the points we find in the Gospels. Hence a number of the parallel accounts must be combined in order to mirror Jesus. Third, no miracle-worker per se existed within two hundred years on either side of Jesus. Fourth, many of the parallels cited are weak. Fifth, parallels can be seen in just about anything...

I wish I had a dollar for every time an apologist rattled off this claim that much in the mysteries postdates Christianity and this makes borrowing possible in the other direction. The only accurate aspect of it is that some of the existing evidence for what was contained in the mysteries comes from the second century, a little of it from later centuries, but this does not mean that such features necessarily began only at that later time. There is precious little writing per se about the mysteries (not the least because it was officially forbidden), and what did find its way onto paper comes mostly from the CE period. But no dispassionate analyst is going to maintain that such things did not go back into earlier times. Such earlier evidence tends to be of the sort I mentioned in the Harpur book review, artifacts, frescoes, fragmentary texts, or the writings of ancient historians, playwrights, etc., who happen to deal with related subjects, and so on. That gods like Tammuz, Adonis, Dionysus, Osiris had myths which contained many of the same features as we find in the story of Jesus is simply undeniable. This is not to say that myths and cults of these gods would not have undergone some evolution over time; no religion stays static indefinitely, and that includes Christianity over its first few centuries. And there is always a certain amount of syncreticism going on, and that too includes Christianity in its formative processes. But to simply dismiss the common elements between Christianity and the pagan mystery religions as a case of direct borrowing from the former by the latter from the second century on is apologetic nonsense.

First of all, we have the witness of a writer like Celsus, around 160-180, whom Origen did his best to refute. He accused the Christians of having nothing new, of borrowing or stealing everything from the widespread myths of the time. Then we have Christianity's own apologists like Justin and Tertullian being forced to deal with such accusations, not by denying that the mysteries had possessed such features before Christianity came along, but by admitting that while they did predate Christ, they were the responsibility of Satan and his demons who counterfeited them ahead of time. (We laugh at such rationalizations today, but some modern apologetic antics aren't much better.) Licona actually undertakes to address Justin's remarks, which I will address shortly.

Some of Licona's above-quoted rebuttal involves a common device among apologists. Find and play up any differences one can find, subject the material to minute dissection to see where exact comparisons are lacking, and then claim that this is decisive and disproves the entire case. (As the saying goes, "If it's not an exact parallel, it isn't a parallel.") This, too, is nonsense. No one is claiming that the story of Jesus is a mirror image of every aspect of savior god mythology, and certainly not of any one particular god's mythology. Rather, what we see is a commonality of themes and basic ideas, not all of which are universally shared. Christianity emerged from a broad cultural segment of the ancient world, with Jewish elements of one form or another as a prime component. Judaism itself was not monolithic (as Richard Carrier has laid out concisely in his article "The Spiritual Body of Christ" in The Empty Tomb, which Licona addresses in his critique), and some Jewish circles outside Judea were significantly hellenized. The degree of commonality of themes and elements, including specifics, between Jesus and the pagan myths is extensive, even striking; they are enough to justify the conclusion that in many respects they are indeed cut from the same cloth.

Licona notes some of the parallels that Flemming "drops" on his viewers, including,

Stars Appeared at Their Birth...Healed the Sick; Cast out Demons; Performed Miracles...Betrayed for 30 Pieces of Silver; Celebrated Communal Meal with Bread and Wine; Which Represented the Savior's Flesh and Blood...Resurrected on Third Day; Ascended into Heaven...

Licona claims that "no evidence is provided to show that these stories have a dating any earlier than 100 years after Jesus," and a little later he claims that regarding resurrection, "the first clear parallel does not appear until long after the life of Jesus, probably Adonis around AD 150." In the above list, I would allow that "Betrayed for 30 Pieces of Silver" probably represents one of those poorly supported, and too-close parallels with a specific Jesus feature, but the rest can hardly be denied as widespread mythemes of the ancient world, variously applying to gods, heroes or "divine men." As for Adonis himself, Everett Ferguson (Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p.239) notes: "the Adonis myth perhaps most clearly indicates the resuscitation of a god, but even here it is not strictly a resurrection. These beliefs are more closely allied to the cycle of nature, and the mysteries seem to have had their origin in the agricultural cycle." Ferguson also notes (p.221) that more specific reference to a "resurrection" of Adonis does indeed come from the second century, but probably under the influence of the Egyptian cult of Osiris, not Christianity.

Licona himself gives us a quote from Justin's Dialogue with Trypho which directly refers to Bacchus (Dionysus) "being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven," as well as to Hercules who "ascended to heaven when he died." Justin is being forced to address the parallel nature of Greek traditions like these to those of the Christians, and as we noted, he put it down to the work of evil demons. Licona, of course, has another explanation: the pagans stole from the Christians. But Justin wrote in the middle of the second century. Are we to believe that when Justin noted those parallels, the entries were not yet dry in the mystery cults' books concerning such resurrections and ascensions, having just been appropriated by these ancient cults from the newcomer Christianity, not to mention all the other details and parallels Licona and others suggest pagan religion "copied" from the Christian story? The idea is ridiculous. The Christians themselves seem barely familiar with their own traditions, if we are to judge by the fact that almost nobody before Justin shows any knowledge of the Gospel events and the features of Jesus' life, that Justin is the very first to quote from those Gospels, and almost the first to equate the Son and Logos with a man who had recently lived. Before the time of Justin, pagan writers, satirists and historians have barely taken notice of Christians, let alone of an historical Jesus, and most second century apologists seem to have felt secure in presenting a "complete" picture of the Christian faith without even mentioning him. And yet all these ancient cults suddenly felt it necessary or desirable to adopt features of the Jesus story in wholesale fashion? Preposterous.

This is how I put it in my "cross-examination" of Gregory Boyd in Challenging the Verdict (p.89-90):

Before we leave this issue about borrowing, I would like to call the court’s attention to another point which renders highly questionable the idea that the mysteries took from Christianity. Let me quote Celsus as quoted by Origen: “Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christiansand if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? In truth, there is nothing at all unusual about what Christians believe.” Now, Celsus was a pagan hostile to Christianity who wrote in the latter part of the second century at a time when the mystery cults were flourishing, and he is not the only one to claim that the Christians believed in nothing new. Could someone like Celsus have been totally unaware, if your suggestion is accurate, Dr. Boyd, that within his own lifetime this new Christianity had been the fountainhead of all the major features of the mysteries, that scarcely a few decades before he was writing, those age-old mysteries had revised the myths of their own gods according to Christian rites and doctrines? This is an idea that is genuine nonsense, to use your own term. Besides, considering the hostility which pagans in general held toward the Christian religion, something attested to by early Christian writers including the second century apologists, is it feasible to suppose that such pagans would have been anxious to recast their ancient mysteries according to the despised Christian doctrine, to reinvent their gods along the lines of the Jesus faith they were currently bad-mouthing and condemning on all fronts?

Licona also treats us to the spectacle of himself attempting to discredit Justin's own discussion of the parallels. He calls them "weak," pointing out the differences, for example, between the resurrection of the sons of Jupiter with that of Jesus, since the manner in which they "rise" from a state of death, and the circumstances involved, are quite different. Of course they are. They arise from different cultures, their stories have totally different settings, much of the underlying philosophies are quite different. But Justin was able to recognize what Licona refuses to: that the essence of the theme is the same; both are different expressions of the same basic idea. Licona would no doubt argue that the tradition of the Star at Jesus birth is completely unlike the tradition of a comet at Julius Caesar's birth because one is a star and the other is a comet. That may be a bit of an exaggeration on my part, but let me make my point by quoting Robert Price in Deconstructing Jesus (p.89):

Smith's error is the same as that of Raymond Brown, who dismisses the truckload of comparative religion parallels to the miraculous birth of Jesus. This one is not strictly speaking a virgin birth, since the god fathered the child on a married woman. That one involved physical intercourse with the deity, not overshadowing by the Holy Spirit, and so on. But, we have to ask, how close does a parallel have to be to count as a parallel? Does the divine mother have to be named Mary? Does the divine child have to be named Jesus? Here is the old "difference without a distinction" fallacy.

Just because I choose to plant roses and you choose to plant geraniums, or because our two backyard soils may have different ingredients which favor one or the other, does not mean that they are not both flowers and gardens, or that we have not indulged our green thumbs through common motives and impulses. We both come up with the basic idea under the influence of a traditional practice throughout our urban society; our own garden's layout may even be at least partially the result of viewing our neighbors' gardens and being influenced by what we see.

There are naturally inevitable differences in origins and cultural influences between the pagan salvation mythology and that of Christianity. The mysteries are ancient because their roots go back into prehistory and are dependent on the agricultural cycle of yearly death and rebirth. The myths of the savior gods symbolized these processes and guaranteed rebirth in an afterlife for the initiate. And that afterlife, as Greek philosophy progressed, became the survival of the soul or spirit only, not the body. In contrast, Christianity was not directly rooted in the agricultural cycle, and the Jewish presence in Christianity introduced an element of physical resurrection (anathema to the Greeks). This too, however, underwent a progression from a "spiritual body" (Paul said that flesh and blood couldn't enter the kingdom of heaven) to a raising of the body in flesh, reflected in a similar progression for Christ, as early thought about Christ raised in spirit was supplanted by the Gospels' portraying him raised in flesh. Christianity also had a particular focus on sin and its forgiveness, which the pagan cults scarcely shared, so Christ's features were adapted to those interests. Because of divergent factors like these, it is entirely unrealistic to look for lockstep parallels.

But as Justin recognized, they did have common themes, and often common details for those themes, if only because there are only so many ways the human mind, and sectarian circumstance, will translate those themes into specific traditions and linkages with the god or founder. Baptism is a universally 'cleansing' rite, in one way or another. At a 'sacred meal' what else are the devotees to do but eat and drink, and it is inevitable that these things will be given a sacred significance, usually traced to the god and attributed to him in a mythical inaugurating ceremony. Great men's births must be accompanied by some portent; and their careers will be opposed by those, god or man, whom such careers will threaten. The features of those careers will tend to follow common patterns, whether relating to miracles, disciples or conflicts with others. And they will usually meet some unpleasant fate, with that experience embodied in story lines which have universal elements to them. And so on. Our brains tend to operate along similar lines in much of what they come up with, no matter what the variety of culture and specific interests we may have; parallels and similarities are what we should expect to find, and the various expressions of them will feed off each other. But for one of those religious expressions to claim that its version of things has nothing to do with any of the others, but just happens to be historical reality while the rest are mere myth, is myopia in the extreme. In the case of Christianity, when we also see that its particular translation of the mythemes are in conformity with specific passages in the scriptures, the claim to historical reality becomes naive in the extreme.


Licona spends a few pages engaging in a dubious exercise we've all seen before. Coincidental parallels are noted between ancient Rome and the United States, between Jesus and John F. Kennedy, between Abraham Lincoln and Kennedy. But Licona is comparing apples to oranges. Let's take the case of Lincoln and JFK. Here are a few of the parallels:

- both were elected president in the same year of their respective centuries (1860/1960)
- both were shot in the head
- both had successors who were named Johnson
- the names of both assassins are comprised of fifteen letters

And so on. No one would doubt that these are coincidences, pure and simple, not the least because we know that both men were historical. Licona is facetiously suggesting that, if we followed the lead of Jesus mythicists, an historian a couple of centuries hence might conclude that JFK was a myth, created to embody a 20th century version of Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, in the case of coincidences between Jesus and JFK, future historians might conclude JFK was a myth to embody Christian theology in the 20th century; and likewise, the history of the United States, being coincidentally similar to Rome's, would be a myth to parallel the Roman Empire.

But in the first and third cases, Rome and Abraham Lincoln are historical entities. We know that. That's a given. In each case, Licona is suggesting that someone, or some later group, would create a myth (or interpret something as such) modelled on an historical precedent. What would lead a future historian to do that is not clear; if the archetype is historical, why would the antitype be mythological? In any event, this is entirely opposite to the case of Jesus. The precedents to the Jesus story are mythical. We more or less understand how the myths of Osiris, Mithras, Dionysos, etc., were formed and evolved, and we can recognize the characteristic features of mythical figures and stories. They have characteristics which are peculiar to mythical figures. If we find striking similarities in those features attributed to Jesus, we are led to place him in the same category, not in the opposite one. Without a priori assuming that Jesus is an historical figure (which is the issue under debate, a 'fact' for which there is so little reliable evidence that such a debate is possible) we would interpret such data about Jesus as placing him in the mythical category. It makes little sense to suggest that if the data about JFK bore a strong parallel to the data of a figure who was regarded as historical, that anyone would place him in the opposite category. If it be retorted that the very number of parallels would lead someone to think that this commonality had to be an artificial one, thus making the later one an alleged invention, this is shot down by the fact that we do see (as Licona has shown us) that such coincidences can exist between two known historical figures, and therefore there would be no necessity or impulse to see either one of them as artificial.

A major factor becomes the nature of the data being paralleled. There is a great difference between the data in the JFK/Lincoln case and the data in the Jesus/savior gods case. Each of the features attributed to Jesus and the other deities we can identify as serving a purpose, and they all form part of a coherent whole within the framework of mythical expression. The same is not true of the data in regard to JFK and Lincoln. None of the elements show any purpose at all, neither for elevating status nor casting some significance on the lives of the figures. They are purely random, and unrelated to each other. There is a big difference between being born in a given year and being born of a virgin. The latter has theological significance whereas the former does not. In the case of Lincoln and JFK, one year would be as good as another.

As I said, Licona suggests in theory that some future historian could interpret the coincidences of birth years, or similar names of Lincoln's and JFK's successors, etc., as indicating that the later example of JFK was deliberately formulated to create a parallel with Lincoln. JFK might become mythologized on the basis of such parallels, as supposedly an historical Jesus is suffering today at the hands of those who would turn him into a myth. But the ridicule element in this is only made possible by the fact that we know JFK is not a myth. If we stood a few centuries hence, and could find little evidence in the historical record that a reputed JFK actually lived, if he was a religious figure all of whose features had mythical significances, and were shared by other figures we knew to be mythical, then there would be nothing ridiculous about such a reasoning process. It wouldn't prove that we were necessarily right about JFK being mythical, but it would present a strong probability, especially when weighed with other indicators.

Parallels between Lincoln and JFK are obvious coincidences. That's the whole point of making this comparison, and the assumption that they are coincidences is necessary to make the exercise meaningful. When we turn to Jesus it is not obvious that these are coincidences; they would need to be argued as such, and that is a difficult thing to do, and certainly Licona does not do so. To simply declare that they are, in order to make the parallel legitimate between the two cases, is once again to beg the question. In fact, it would be almost impossible to make the case that the parallels between Jesus and the savior gods can be put down to coincidence. That a set of multiple circumstances relating to birth, events surrounding that birth, upbringing, career, death burial and resurrection, would happen solely by chance to coincide with sets of themes and even some minute features found in savior god mythology, Hellenistic romance novels, and scriptural passages, and yet nonetheless be historical—even if some of those features in regard to the mystery deities are set aside as overenthusiastic—strains the bounds of credibility.

Licona makes the statement that no miracle-worker per se existed within 200 years on either side of Jesus, and a little later, that I speak of "would-be messiahs and miracle workers that plagued Palestine throughout the first century." But here he is putting words in my mouth. I am not saying that any of these figures were declared to be, or declared themselves to be (as far as we can tell) "The Messiah." But Josephus tells us of a number of figures who acted messiah-like, and even promised messiah-like results. Judas the Galilean began the zealot movement, promising his countrymen freedom from Rome. Theudas, toward the middle of the century, promised the miracle of dividing the river Jordan so that his followers could cross over. There was also an unnamed Egyptian who claimed that his command, like Joshua's trumpet, would knock down the walls of Jerusalem. When someone gathers forces around him, challenges the Roman authorities and promises miracles will happen in the overthrow of Israel's subjugators, that's a would-be messiah. He would certainly be so in the popular mind. As for the zealot leaders who provoked the War and the downfall of the nation, they can hardly be denied delusions of messiahship. In all these cases, if it looks, talks and walks like a duck, it probably thinks it's a duck.

Licona, quoting Twelftree, acknowledges that there are figures who "perform a single miracle or two during their lifetime, but they are not to be compared to Jesus." But this is short-sighted on a number of counts. With one major exception, we don't have an account of a miracle-worker's career comparable to the Gospels, though we have surviving traditions about this or that individual performing reputed miracles in general, such as certain Jewish rabbis. We also have testimony to the widespread practice of magic and miracle-working, even if no surviving names are attached to it. (For statements in principle on this, see for example Burton Mack, Myth of Innocence, p.209.) And when we offer that one exception, namely Apollonius of Tyana, whose reputed miracle-working rivalled the reputed miracles of Jesus, what does Licona do? He imputes that it was all made up by Apollonius' biographer Philostratus over a century later! As if there would have been no traditions of miracle-working going back to, or near to, Apollonius' career which Philostratus could have drawn on. No, he made up the whole idea himself, and moreover, did it all in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth. We are not allowed to 'win' on any count, no matter how unlikely the argument that has to be put forward.

Actually, the tradition that Jesus (even if historical) worked all those miracles is on no more secure ground than the traditions about Philostratus. Not a single Christian writer of the first century outside the Gospels so much as mentions miracles by their Jesus, a subject often conspicuous by its absence. To find the first reference to Jesus being a miracle-worker one has to go beyond even Ignatius to the epistle of Barnabas, and even he fails to give any examples. When we also consider that miracle working was expected to accompany the approach of the Kingdom, when we consider that most of the miracles in the Gospels are midrashically modelled on miracles stories of the Old Testament, we have reason to believe that nothing goes back to any recorded historical miracle-working (genuine or not) by Jesus. In fact, believers and apologists are faced with a dilemma. If miracle-working was such a rarity, and yet Jesus of Nazareth uniquely performed—or was reputed to have performedall or even some of these wondrous deeds, how can it be that not only contemporary Christian writers are silent on them, they created no stir which would impel non-Christian commentators of the time to make any mention of them either?

Licona says he is "not attempting to split hairs" in regard to the resurrection of Romulus.

"Resurrection" meant that the corpse that had died was returned to life and transformed into an immortal body. If we view every story of a post-mortem appearance as a parallel to Jesus, then we have to include every ghost story and grief hallucination, from past to present.

But not only is he indeed splitting hairs, he is cutting them according to his own rules and definitions, namely the Christian ones. "Resurrection" may mean the above to Christians (with a leaning toward the way Paul expresses things, rather than the Gospels), but the mysteries had their own concepts of resurrection, what constituted their own equivalent. If Greeks believed only in the survival of the spirit into an afterlife, then a physical resurrection to earth for the god—in any form of body—would not have formed a part of their thinking. But the effect for them would have been essentially the same; both would have conferred the same benefit. As long as the god overcame death in some way which invested him with some power that could be transferred to the initiate, the theme was the same. In imagining that a spiritual Christ in the spiritual realm had been killed and rose from death, Paul was simply creating or supporting a variant of the mystery cult theme. When the Gospels put forward the idea that he had lived and died on earth and rose on earth in flesh, the theme was carried a step further toward the literal. This does not change its fundamental nature as another expression of a universal mytheme.

Licona dismisses the case of Asclepius, "raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases," as a pertinent parallel to Jesus, even though he was slain by another god. Why? Apparently because the story of Asclepius "occurs in the foggy past with no marks of historicity." But that's not the point. The Gospels, for their own reasons and circumstances, place an historical Jesus in recent history, whereas the pagan traditions, being more ancient, did not. But given that new setting, we see the Gospel story as following the themes of the Asclepius story. That is what is significant. Despite Licona's denial, it is "a strong parallel to Jesus," and Robert Price's use of it is not a "very poor" example; just as many post-mortem appearances to gods or heroes are legitimate parallels to the post-resurrection stories in the Gospels, since all serve the same purposes. It is ironic that Licona belittles such parallels, saying that "we would have to include every ghost story and grief hallucination from past to present," when there is no evidence in Paul that the visionary experiencing of the risen Christ was anything but that: the conviction that they had seen the spiritual Jesus, an entirely spiritual entity, or "ghost" if you like. And even if we were to assume an historical, crucified Jesus, such visions could very well have been a "grief hallucination."

Before we go on, I should mention that I was taken aback by a little detail in this section of Licona's critique. In offering one of the Psalms, he says "The psalmist David is writing poetically..." David?? Does Licona actually support the ancient fantasy that the Psalms were written by David? This would place him so far beyond the low end of the critical spectrum he would disappear from sight.

Doherty and the Jesus Myth

In his section "Flemming Interviews Earl Doherty," Licona seems to have difficulty getting a handle on the material, and his rebuttal is ill-organized; to some points there is no rebuttal at all to speak of. To my reported statement that Matthew, Luke and John rework Mark in ways that show they had no concern about preserving 'history' in their sources," or that "Paul never places Jesus' death and resurrection in an historical setting," Licona can only muster

[I]t is not uncommon for scholars to see all sorts of interpretations about what biblical authors really meant, rather than what seems plain on the surface.

In this area, I too have "creative skills." I hope that Licona realizes that this sort of thing is not a counter argument to what are very important considerations in the record. Similarly, to an argument that threatens to turn the Gospels upside-down...

Of the story of Jesus' multiplying of the loaves and fishes, [Doherty] writes: "These are direct reworkings of the miracles of Elijah and Elisha." Doherty thinks of the New Testament as Midrash, a new way of seeing spiritual truth. He claims that the Evangelists went to the Old Testament and created a Jesus based on certain Old Testament passages. Thus, they were using Old Testament passages to create the story.

...his rebuttal is extremely weak:

Most scholars see things differently. They recognize that the New Testament writers attempted to make sense of Jesus by going back to the Old Testament to see what it may have said about him. Midrash was an attempt to take old stories and make them relevant to the people of the writer's own time and culture. But we can note that those writing the midrash believed the stories they were adding to.

And just how do we "recognize" and "note" such things? Licona does not say. Is there the slightest account in Paul or any other epistle writer which tells of this great exercise reputed to have been undertaken by the simple fishermen apostles around Jesus to examine the scriptures, along with much sophisticated Greek philosophy besides, and interpret their late Master according to it all? The first century breathes not a word of it. This is one of the great rationalizations of the last two centuries of New Testament scholarship, that all the high christology of the epistles, from Colossians' great Logos-type hymn of the cosmic Son (1:15-20) to Hebrews' High Priest who performs a sacrifice in heaven, is all "an interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth," despite the fact that nowhere in any of it is this christology identified with such a man. They all present a Son of God along various interpretive lines, but they never equate him with the Jesus of the Gospels. As I've said elsewhere, Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God.

Licona speaks of the writers believing in the stories "they were adding to." His language here is woolly, and what else is there but stories? Where is the material based on historical memory as distinct from ingredients that are in direct parallel with scripture, and thus bearing every sign of being drawn from it? Why would apostles who went to scripture to make sense of their dead Master have created a story simply out of scriptural elements, with no input from their own memories to fashion the tale? Since around 1980, mainstream critical scholarship has identified virtually every single element of the passion story as dependent on scripture, both for fine details and overall story line. As Crossan has put it, there is nothing left to represent "history remembered." (Robert Price has shown that this is also largely true of the ministry portions of the Gospels.) And where is the great variety of oral tradition about the events of Jesus' death which should have been circulating, imposing itself on the evangelists' accounts? What is it that the evangelists still believed in? The simple existence of the man in question? That's possible, but it eradicates any factuality in the stories being told of him. And where in the non-Gospel record is there any indication of the great controversy that should have arisen over such factuality? Did no one notice that so much of the tradition being told of Jesus was scripture-derived? What did the convert make of the dichotomy between history and midrash? The issue never arises. Indeed, the entire question of Jesus' historical words and deeds never arises, since no one makes any mention of them, certainly not Paul who never offers a single earthly detail about the great dying and rising of his savior, and tells the poor Thessalonians that it is God who has taught them to love one another.

Licona makes a half-hearted attempt to appeal to the reliability of "a number of ancient non-Christian sources [who] mention a historical Jesus," and says that I will no doubt claim them all as interpolations. I don't need to. The so-called mentions by Pliny the Younger and Suetonius make no clear reference at all to an historical man; in the latter it is not even clear that he is speaking about Christians. The "majority of scholars" may today hold that some sort of authentic reference to Jesus was made by Josephus, but this was not always so. Early in the 20th century, the majority tendency was to reject it all as unlikely to be authentic. (Charles Guignebert is representative when he says, "It seems probable that Josephus did not name Jesus anywhere" [Jesus, p.18].) The modern trend to claim a residue of the "Testimonium" in the Antiquities of the Jews 18 as original is as much a bandwagon effect as anything, and there are so many difficulties and contradictory arguments in regard to this as to render any conclusion totally uncertain. Apologists just don't understand this point. The existence of Jesus does not, and cannot, stand or fall on Josephus. All the mythicist case needs to demonstrate is that the references in Josephus are unreliable, and this has been done. The case for either side must rest elsewhere, and for the mythicist case it does.

(I was vastly amused at Licona's appeal to "today's leading Josephus scholar Louis Feldman." The fact that I've never heard of Feldman may not mean anything, but what does this "leading" scholar say to support the authenticity of the second Josephan reference to Jesus? Licona quotes him: "The passage about James [Antiquities Book 20, Sections 197-200] has generally been accepted as authentic." Apparently this "authority" on the subject is basing his opinion on the appeal to other authorities, who "generally" accept the passage. Talk about inbred 'evidence'!)

As for Tacitus, all Licona can offer is that

it is unlikely that a Roman historian such as Tacitus who had no respect for Christians would rely on their reports about Jesus for his own writing of history.

Well, not every scholar would agree with him. Norman Perrin (The New Testament: An Introduction, p.405) thinks this is exactly where Tacitus got his information. And considering that Tacitus' gives us the barest facts about "Christus, the founder of the sect," which does not even include a reputed resurrection, would indicate a lack of research from any source. And yes, there are good arguments for postulating an interpolation here, though on balance I tend to hold to authenticity.

In answer to my point that there is no evidence in the early record that any of the apostles were actually martyred (a concept absolutely dear to the hearts of apologists for an historical Jesus), Licona's response is not much more than, "But this seems unlikely." He appeals to the speeches in Acts as though these represent reliable traditions about what Paul did and said, backing this up with the declaration that "few believe that the content of the speeches was invented by Luke," a statement that is simply untrue where critical scholars are concerned. (And just where and how would the individual words, or even the subject matter, of given apostles' speeches made across half the empire at least decades earlier, have survived in 'tradition' to be drawn on by the writer of Acts—be reasonable!) Licona makes the mistake of appealing to 1 Clement as evidence that Paul was martyred, since he overlooks an even more important point. Yes, this epistle, in chapter 5, seems to suggest that Paul ended his life in martyrdom, though it is obscurely stated. However, what is blatantly missing is any suggestion that such a martyrdom took place in Rome, something a Roman author would hardly have left out if any such tradition existed. Since I regard 1 Clement as basically authentic in regard to general dating and to being what it makes itself out to be (and Licona would hardly side with more radical views here), this is strong evidence that around the turn of the second century, the tradition had not yet developed that Paul had gone to Rome and been martyred there. So much for the reliability of Acts as representing history.

A Christian Document Without Christ

Licona lays out my case regarding Q:

Doherty believes there was a Q community that did not believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jesus in Q is not considered a Savior figure, but bears a strong resemblance to the Greek [C]ynics of the period. Doherty thinks the documentary record shows that today's Christianity is a combination of the Christianities of both the Q community and Paul and that this combination took place in the Gospel of Mark. It is not a mix of oral tradition that Mark has tied together.

In response he says,

In Larry Hurtado's recent work on Christology...he interacts with John Kloppenborg's work on Q. Kloppenborg seems to agree with Doherty that Q's failure to note any passion narratives or redemptive interpretations of the death of Jesus indicates that Q does not know them. But Hurtado points out that it is "not credible to imagine these Q people as somehow remaining ignorant, while all about them interpretations of Jesus' death as redemptive, and believe in Jesus' resurrection as well, were circulating among the followers of Jesus." Paul is clear that what he preaches is essentially in agreement with what was coming out of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-10)...

There is a wealth of revelation about the apologist mentality coming out of these few sentences, along with what follows. It shows that as long as students of the New Testament are blinded by the old paradigms, they will never be able to grasp the essence of the mythicist case or properly perceive the course of early Christian development. Once again, we have a case here of begging the question in the sense I discussed, and Hurtado is as guilty of it as Licona. A reconstructed Qand it's a reconstruction that has been going on for a century and a half with a great degree of reliability having been achieved by nowindicates quite clearly that no death and resurrection, no salvific role for Jesus (other than being identified with the Son of Man), is in sight in that document. This is something that would be almost inconceivable for a community which was a part of the early Christian movement as envisioned by orthodoxy. Instead of an opening of the mind to see if there is another way, another scenario within which such a void could make sense, people like Hurtado simply appeal to the assumption that it was all part of a larger whole which would require that the Q people would know of those missing features, regardless of whether they are in evidence or not. That, as I said earlier, is begging the question. As a counter to arguments based on evidence, Hurtado is appealing to arguments (his claim that something is "not credible") which are not based on evidence, but on assumptions that need to be supported.

One of those assumptions is that there was a connection between the Q community, its faith and practice, and the community of the cultic Christ of which Paul was a part. Since the record in regard to both gives every indication that there was no connection between them, since they are lacking every essential common element, this is the more compelling conclusion to draw, regardless of what orthodoxy has made of it or how disturbing it might be. Yes, there were in the outside world (to Q) faiths that involved an interpretation of the death of a Jesus as redemptive; that these were entirely different faiths to what the Q community was about, is something that would never occurand never be allowed to occurto Hurtado or Licona. It would never occur to them that the Jesus whom "followers" like Paul believed in was entirely different from the Jesus (if there originally was one in Q, or if that is what he was called) associated with the sayings and miracle-working of the Q community. And yet that is precisely what a dispassionate study of the evidence would indicate. Paul does say that he and the Jerusalem apostles are preaching essentially the same thing, but there is nothing in Q that ties it to any Jerusalem group or the city itself. Perhaps Hurtado hasn't noticed that Q contains no mention of specific apostles, let alone any Peter, Paul or John from the Pauline side of things. (No doubt he would claim that they have to know such figures.)

Licona postulates a couple of options to explain why the Q document did not mention the death and resurrection of Jesus.

First, it could be that, for reasons unknown to us, Matthew and Luke preferred to use other sources when it came to these stories. Second, it could be that Q was composed during the lifetime of Jesus. In this case, we would not expect passion and resurrection narratives.

His first option is conjecture; on top of that, it is unlikely. If Matthew and Luke possessed a document containing not only a rich source of sayings and miracles, but material associated with the trial, crucifixion and resurrection, why ignore the latter content completely? What are the odds that both of them would do so? Their only other source seems to have been Mark, and of course, scripture. If there were sayings and anecdotes in Q relating to Jesus' experiences in Jerusalem, why not draw on that to supplement the Markan and scriptural use? But it is not only the death and resurrection. If Q was intimately tied to the entire world of Jesus worship, why is there no mention of its Jesus as the Messiah (the Son of Man is something distinctly different), why is there no equivalent to the Gospel sayings of Jesus relating to his role as savior, as the coming Son of Man, as one destined to undergo death and rising? These are topics the Gospels intimately associate with Jesus' ministry, yet they too are missing in Q. None of the linkages on which Hurtado bases his assumptions can be found anywhere in that reconstructed document.

The latter observations help discredit Licona's second option. Even to suggest that Q could have been compiled during Jesus' lifetime, or rather during the latter part of a one-year ministry (which is all the window one could allow), is to ignore all critical scholarship and common-sense understanding of the document itself. There are clear signs of development within Q. The seams are there, the incompatible elements that indicate evolution. Certain sayings are unmistakeably reflective of the passage of time since the presumed period of Jesus, even in those assigned to him, such as Matthew 11:23, based on Q: "From the days of John the Baptist until now..." Can this be referring to a matter of months? No, it is a saying when first formulated which reflected the community looking back over its history, something artifically placed later in an artificial Jesus' mouth. Is the Temptation story something that would have arisen in Jesus' lifetime? Q is full of indicators like this which reveal much about its nature, its history, what its reputed founder was and what he was not.

Finally on the matter of Q, Licona again shows a limited understanding of the situation:

Moreover, if Mark used Q as one of his sources, we must ask how we may detect this in his Gospel. After all, scholars identify Q by tradition common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark! Thus, Doherty's argument that Mark combined Q and Paul does not make much sense.

"Q" is a document hypothesized through extraction from Matthew and Luke (a quite valid process). But this document makes best sense when seen as the product of a community. We can identify themes of that community from the sayings and anecdotes. The itinerant lifestyle of its apostles, the expectation of the Son of Man, the performance of miracles as harbingers of the Kingdom, its view of John the Baptist as its mentor, and so on. These general themes are found in Mark. It is clear that the communities of Mark, Matthew and Luke are rooted in the same general Kingdom-preaching movement, which may have spanned several decades and a wide area of Galilee and Syria. What Mark did not have was a specific document from which all the specific sayings found in Matthew and Luke were drawn. This is why Mark contains none of them, and is in fact quite threadbare on sayings in general. Q must have seemed a goldmine to the authors of Matthew and Luke, and it may have provided the main impetus for them to do their own revisions to Mark, incorporating the content of Q.

Smoking Guns

One of the great stumbling blocks for historicity in the New Testament epistles is Hebrews 8:4. I will quote three different translations of this verse:

- NEB: "Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest, since there are already priests who offer the gifts which the Law prescribes."
- NIV: "If he were on earth he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law."
- The Translator's New Testament: "If he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, because there are priests who offer the gifts according to the Law."

I will start by repeating what I have often said elsewhere. The verb which is translated above as either "were" or "had been" is ēn, the imperfect tense of "to be." It is sometimes debated as to whether the imperfect in a contrafactual situation must have a present sense, or whether it may also refer to the past (as the NEB renders it), but this is what one scholar, Paul Ellingworth (Epistle to the Hebrews, p.405), has to say:

“The second difficulty concerns the meaning of the two occurrences of ēn. The imperfect in unreal conditions is temporally ambiguous, so that NEB [New English Bible] ‘Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest’ (so Attridge) is grammatically possible. However, it goes against the context, in at least apparently excluding Christ’s present ministry, and it could also be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never ‘been on earth’.”

I'm always happy to quote Dr. Ellingworth, as one can imagine. Having laid that groundwork, let's see how Mike Licona handles the affair.

Licona declares he is going to look at the "context" of this verse. But his concept of context is to randomly pick other verses in the epistle, draw conclusions from them individually, and then claim that they cast a certain light on the verse in question. My concept of context addresses what is being laid out, and argued, in the immediately surrounding passage of which this verse forms a part. We must analyze it in the context of what the passage itself is saying.

Part of Licona's context, for example, is 7:14, which has nothing to do with a discussion of sacrifices, which is what chapter 8 and 9 are all about. It assigns "the Lord" to the tribe of Judah, but this is almost certainly derived from scripture, which is where the writer draws all of his data about Jesus throughout the epistle. (I'll touch on this again when dealing a little later with Licona's examples in Hebrews of "Jesus as one who lived on earth.") Licona then points to a later verse (7:27) which states the fact of Jesus' sacrifice. Finally, 8:1 says that Jesus has taken his seat at the right hand of God. From this "context" Licona draws the progression: life on earth...death/sacrifice on Calvary to inaugurate a new covenant... ascension to heaven where he now serves as our priest. 8:4 is thus to be interpreted this way:

In context, the author of Hebrews is saying that if Jesus had continued to be on earth rather than going to heaven, he would not be serving as a priest as he now does.

The context as Licona has constructed it is one of his own making. First, it must be established that 7:14 refers to an historical, human descent from the Judah tribe, and this Licona simply assumes because for him (and for so many others) it sounds like it. Second, Hebrews has not a word to say about Calvary, about a sacrifice on earth. For this epistle, the "sacrifice" is an act that takes place in heaven, as the context of chapters 8 and 9 clearly shows. It is the act of Christ bringing his own blood into the heavenly sanctuary and offering it to God; the preceding death, when or where it has taken place, is never mentioned or factored into the equation in any way. Hebrews' Jesus is a "High Priest" precisely because of this heavenly act, he is a priest in terms of it. We'll come back to this.

The writer of Hebrews never states, or even intimates, that Christ went from earth to heaven at any point. This implication is read into the epistle on the basis of a couple of verses elsewhere which 'sound like' earthly experiences, such as 5:7 or 10:5. (Again, we'll consider these shortly.) But since all these verses show that their basis is scripture and not historical tradition, and since the kind of thinking in evidence throughout the epistle, including every aspect of the presentation of Jesus' sacrifice, is solidly in terms of Middle Platonic philosophy of higher and lower worlds, there is no basis (other than the simple assumption of orthodoxy) to impute an earthly life for Hebrews' Jesus. Thus Licona's progression from earth to heaven is without foundation.

Would Licona's analysis of 8:4 make much sense if we were to accept his progression? Not much, or none at all. What would be the point of the author saying this? Part of the problem is Licona's shallow understanding of the term "priest." He simply takes it in a general way, as though one might refer to the priest of one's parish, taking care of our souls, praying to God for us, and perhaps keeping the candles lighted. But Hebrews is far more sophisticated than that. Jesus is a High Priest, the spiritual equivalent to the high priest on earth. He is a High Priest in that he performed the heavenly (Platonic) equivalent of the act which the earthly high priest performs, namely bringing the blood of the sacrificed animal into the inner sanctuary and offering it to God. In Jesus' case, it is his own blood; he is the sacrificed entity. It is this high priestly act, taking place entirely in heaven, which mediates the new, better covenant. It is better because it takes place in heaven, "in a more perfect tent, not made by men's hands, that is, not belonging to this created world..." (9:11; cf. 9:24 and 8:5). This Platonic dichotomy saturates the philosophical picture presented in Hebrews, and is absolutely undeniable (though there are those, from apologists to Bernard Muller, who refuse to see it).

With this context laid out, Licona's statement of what is meant by 8:4 simply doesn't work. I'll repeat it:

In context, the author of Hebrews is saying that if Jesus had continued to be on earth rather than going to heaven, he would not be serving as a priest as he now does.

In any context, this would leave us scratching our heads. The statement per se makes sense, but what does it tell us? What purpose does it serve, especially in relation to any argument being made in this passage? Of course if Jesus had stayed on earth he wouldn't be a priest in heaven. What's the point of saying that? Indeed, the very idea that Jesus would stay on earth has no relevance. What if someone said, "If Jesus hadn't sacrificed himself we wouldn't be saved." Of course. That's evident. But why bother to make such a statement? What purpose would it serve?

At first glance, the sentence as it stands in 8:4 may seem trivial, but it makes a point relevant to the argument, it makes sense in relation to the issue being discussed. And it serves to introduce the basic difference and separation of the two kinds of high priest, heavenly and earthly. In verse 3, he has just said:

"Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices: hence, this one too must have something to offer...."

Note that this is a general statement; it applies to all times. There has no particular relevance to the past as opposed to the present, or vice-versa. The writer is starting to focus on the different types of high priest and the different types of sacrifices they are each appointed to make; he specifically states that Jesus ("this one") has his specific sacrifice. He is about to introduce a dichotomy, the difference between the high priests on earth and Jesus the heavenly High Priest, and their respective sacrifices. What is the first thing he now says? He says 8:4:

"If he were on earth he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law."

So the basic aspect of his dichotomy, the idea he places first, is that (however you want to phrase it, whatever tense you want to understand) Jesus as High Priest does not function on earth. The earthly high priests fill that role. This is not a case of past or present. It is a general state of affairs. (Which, as Ellingworth acknowledges, fits the ambiguous nature of the imperfect ēn perfectly.) Jesus' sacrifice, and his act as High Priest, takes place in a different venue, namely heaven. Verse 4 leads onward to verse 6, which, after the point being made that the earthly high priests "minister in a sanctuary which is only a copy and shadow of the heavenly" (a Platonic principle he supports from scripture), says:

"The ministry which has fallen to Jesus is as far superior to theirs as are the covenant he mediates and the promises upon which it is legally secured."

Supported by further statements in later verses (such as those I mentioned above, 9:11 and 9:23-24), this is clearly presenting a High Priest Jesus who operates exclusively in heaven. Earth is the earthly high priests' territory, and heaven is Jesus' territory. Jesus doesn't operate on earth because he would have nothing to do there; that's where the earthly high priests function. Claiming that this mutual exclusivity only applies to the present and not to the past makes no sense whatsoever; it would be trivial, indeed completely pointless, to note this separation of territory for today, when the separation would not have existed at the time of Jesus' incarnation on earth when Jesus' death and priestly sacrifice actually took place there.

It may seem a little peculiar on the writer's part that he began with the thought, "If he were on earth...", but that was simply his way of introducing the idea that it is the earthly high priests who are appointed to perform the earthly sacrifices; he is simply adding the thought that a Jesus on earth (which he never was, the writer is saying, only if he had been—the thought is contrafactual) would have had no part in them and thus would have had no scope to perform as a priest. The thought would be true at any time, past or present. Note that he is not simply saying that Jesus wouldn't have taken part in the earthly high priest's duties; he is saying that he would not have been a priest at all. His appointed sacrifices (which render him a priest) do not belong to earth. That is what he says repeatedly throughout these chapters. And for the writer to say all this would be impossiblelet me repeat: impossibleif Jesus had been crucified and resurrected on earth, since it would be impossible not to regard such actions as at least part of Jesus' act of sacrifice, and this would contradict his careful and adamant separation of the roles and acts of the earthly vs. the heavenly high priests into their two respective territories.

(Indeed, it might be said that Hebrews could only have been conceived and written in the context of the Jesus Myth theory. One of the vexing questions for scholars has always been the who, why and how. Why would any Christian group associated with the faith movement about an historical Jesus, presumably taught and accepting a certain soteriological kerygma based on Calvary and the resurrection from the tomb, have come up with this radically eccentric presentation of Jesus' sacrifice in heaven, based on esoteric uses of scripture and ancient cultic practice, with no referent whatsoever to the earthly hill and gravesite? I suggest that they are correct to find it unexplainable (nor has it been explained by any commentator). I suggest that a writer or community with Calvary and the tomb staring them in the face simply could not have been led to create the mystical otherworldly scenario of Hebrews, one entirely inhabiting the inner hothouse world and mythical dimension of scripture. From its opening verses to the final "Amen" (the remaining four verses have undoubtedly been tacked on later to turn this theological treatise into a letter), this writer does not live in the real world. This is Platonic Judaism as much divorced from reality, or any link to it, as an asylum. And while this is perhaps the most extreme case in the New Testament, so much else in the epistles, and Revelation, echoes the same scripture-based metaphysical atmosphere, with little or no relevance to the everyday world. I suggest that such writers and apostles could immerse themselves in such a dimension only because their faith had no connection to a real-world event or figure. It was all a product of their own minds, their own relevations, their own fevered study of scripture....And I would also suggest that continuing to insist in our modern scientific age on interpreting reality according to those minds and those scenarios threatens to compromise our own sanity.)

The earthly high priest performs his sacrifice with the animal's blood in the earthly tabernacle; Jesus the High Priest performs his, involving his own blood, in the heavenly tabernacle. The author is not only comparing the two as higher/lower, heavenly/earthly, counterparts in Platonic fashion, he is declaring Jesus' sacrifice as the superior one, having superior efficacy. Most important, it has supplanted the earthly ones. Once this principle is recognized, and it works specifically because one is on earth and inferior, while the other is in heaven and "better" and "eternal" (9:23 and 14), everything else falls into place. The essence of this sect's faith is in this superiority and supplanting. (Remember the first chapter, devoted to demonstrating the Son's superiority over the angels, who were the mediators of the old covenant—a superiority, by the way, entirely 'proven' by appeals to scripture and nothing at all relating to the incarnated life of the Son.) The old system isn't needed anymore. Jesus' sacrifice, "once for all" (hapax), unlike the repeated sacrifices on earth with the inferior blood of animals, has accomplished salvation and the forgiveness of sin (9:14).

Could this "once for all" sacrifice have been performed on earth? I think I have already demonstrated the separation of territory which would rule it out. But let's take a different run at it. First of all, no earthly dimension to the sacrifice is introduced. There is a passing reference to "the cross" (12:2), but this is not related to the sacrifice; it is placed in no historical or earthly setting and need be no more earthly than any other piece of ancient savior-god mythology. The sacrifice of Jesus is superior precisely because it takes place in heaven, because it belongs to a sphere which is the higher, more perfect counterpart of the high priest's sphere on earth. Drawing on Paul Ellingworth again (Ibid., p.405), he states in regard to the dichotomy between Jesus and the earthly high priests in 8:4:

The argument presupposes, rather than states, that God cannot establish two priestly institutions in competition.

In other words, Ellingworth is recognizing that the two classes or levels of priesthood, the divine and the human, the heavenly and the earthly, cannot coexist in the same sphere. But this makes no sense in the light of imposed orthodoxy. If Jesus' sacrifice was seen as in any way taking place on earth, it would be contravening this stated principle. In an orthodox context, given all the apparent ambiguity involved in this passage, an element of confusion would be present which would have to be clarified, yet the writer offers no clarification at all. He shows no sign of being aware of any problem.

Apologists like Licona resist the NEB translation because that gives them no way out. If the writer is referring to the past and declares not only that Jesus wasn't there, but that he wouldn't have been a priest, then this has to be seen as destroying historicity, and it contradicts the presentation of Jesus as a priest. The only way out is to take it as present: if he were now on earth. But this is not really a way out, because it leads to a dead end. Why make such a statement? What would be the point of saying if Jesus were on earth today he wouldn't be a priest? What could it possibly mean in the context of the epistle? If the writer is describing an historical event of the past, portraying Jesus as a High Priest performing a sacrifice of himself (the first stage of which, on Calvary, was definitely on earth), what would it mean for him to say that if he were now on earth, he wouldn't—what? Wouldn't perform his sacrifice? Of course not, that's already been done. Couldn't serve or be regarded as a priest today, as opposed to yesterday when he could? None of it makes sense. An exclusively present sense for this statement in 8:4 has no meaning at all, no purpose at all, and would certainly have any reader, ancient or modern, shaking his or her head in confusion. I have never seen any commentary on this passage that grapples with, or even recognizes, the anomalies contained in it, let alone remotely offers a way to make sense of it along orthodox lines. Most often, it is simply glossed over. It takes a lot of concentration to ignore a smoking gun at a crime scene, but the vast number of detectives who have investigated Hebrews have managed to do just that.

Verse 8:4 is itself a declaration that the acts of Jesus as High priest cannot take place on earth, that his sacrifice is not an earthly one. If it were, if it could, then there would be no conflict with the duties of the high priest of the Temple (or at Sinai, which is where Hebrews' earthly 'action' is located—again, an example of its whole thought and argument being based in scripture). They could both do their own respective thing in the same sphere. 8:4, however, says the opposite.

If an attempt is made to split the sacrifice hair and say that the crucifixion itself, the producing of the blood, took place on earth, but the bringing of the blood into the heavenly sanctuary is treated separately as the "sacrifice" act, one might get part of a foot in the door. Jesus is not High Priest in regard to the Calvary event, dying on the cross, but only in regard to the heavenly segment, since this and only this is what constitutes being the heavenly High Priest. But the door is still stuck. Because this renders the 8:4 idea contradictory. If Jesus is by definition only High Priest when he's in heaven and not on earth, then 8:4 becomes inapplicable, no matter whether past or present; the thought would be irrelevant, and the author would have no logical or necessary reason to say it.

I have offered other discussions about Hebrews 8:4 in previous website articles, and would refer the reader to them if interested (Article No. 9: A Sacrifice in Heaven, and toward the end of my Comment on Richard Carrier's review of The Jesus Puzzle, as well as the Hebrews file in my Sounds of Silence feature), although the present one is fuller and essentially supplants them all. I submit that 8:4 spells out that Jesus was not, and never had been, an earthly figure.

Licona, as do so many others, points to various references elsewhere in the spistle which sound like they are talking about a Jesus on earth. Rather than add to the material here (and make this article totally unwieldy), I will refer the reader to the above mentioned Article No. 9, which discusses those passages at length. (Hebrews 7:14 is discussed in Article No. 8, Christ As "Man" under the heading "Sprung From Judah.") Here, I will simply make the point that in most cases, it will be seen that the author makes those statements because he is reading them out of scripture; 10:5 most clearly shows that scripture is regarded as the embodiment of the Christ myth, that the "through the Son" spoken of in 1:2 is the perceived voice and channel of the Son in scripture, not on earth. Not a single saying of Jesus is provided in this epistle, not even when several would have been available to make the writer's point, such as in chapter 2 concerning the Son regarding all men as his brothers. And when the Son is "for a short while made lower than the angels," or when he is "made like his brothers in every way," Licona ignores the available Platonic interpretation of such ideas, the counterpart, homologic relationship between heaven and earth, and that of the descending god who takes on human-like forms and is crucified in a heavenly sphere that was indeed lower than that of the angels. (The very concept of reading Christ out of scripture, a window onto the spiritual reality, is also an expression of Platonic philosophy.) It's an interpretation that fits very well with the total content of the epistle, which never breathes a word of a human Jesus of Nazareth or a life beginning in Bethlehem and ending on Calvary.

The One Who Is To Come

My second "smoking gun" (or perhaps the second bullet of the same weapon, as Licona puts it) is Hebrews 10:37. Here it is in a literal translation:

For yet in (a) so so little (time), the coming one [ho erchomenos] will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul will not be pleased with him.

Licona accuses me of "not bother[ing] to read the context." Nor am I familiar with the ancient Christian belief that Jesus would return from heaven very soon. (Hmmm, I wonder how I missed that?) Well, it is apparently Licona who is not familiar with the context, and what the above passage constitutes. It is a quote of Habakkuk 2:3-4 (the Septuagint version). The prophet, at the behest of God, is to write down that  the "coming one" is coming soon, wait for him. As I said in The Jesus Puzzle (p.50):

The prophet was referring to God himself, but by the Christian period this was one of those many biblical passages reinterpreted as referring to the Messiah. Indeed, the Greek participle erchomenos, which the Septuagint employs, became a virtual title, used with a masculine article, "the Coming One," and referred to the expected savior figure who would arrive at the End-time. Hebrews is clearly using it as a reference to Christ.

So the "context" is not one involving the belief that Jesus would return from heaven very soon, since it is a quote of a prophet who lived centuries earlier. Since there is no suggestion here or anywhere else in Hebrews that Jesus is a figure who would "return" from heaven, Licona has created his own context, formed by reading the Gospels into the epistle, something that is the prime methodology of apologists everywhere and at all times for close to two millennia. As I pointed out in regard to this passage, the writer employs Habakkuk's prophecy without qualification. The words, and the prophet's intention, say that the "Coming One" (the Messiah, or God himself, or some other End-time apocalyptic figure) will come soon. Not "return." Not "again." Since both writer and reader would have been well familiar with this prophecy, they would know its associations; that is, they would know that it referred to a figure who was to come in the future, a figure who had not already been to earth. To use it without qualification, without clarifying that this Coming One had recently been here, so that this was a second coming, would have gone against the grain. It is, of course, not impossible that someone could use this quote and understand it in a new context without spelling things out, but the point is, to simply claim that this is so is bringing an assumption to the text which cannot be demonstrated. If taken in straightforward fashion (i.e., without begging the question), one has to accept that the direct implication of the passage is that, like Habakkuk, the writer is declaring that the expected Coming One is due to arrive soon and has not already been here.

I am surprised that Licona did not appeal to another verse in this epistle, 9:27-28, which is claimed to be the only passage in the entire epistolary corpus which specifically says that Jesus will come a "second" time. However, there is another way to translate the key words (ek deuterou): as "next," which is actually to be preferred since it fits the parallel the writer has created between verses 27 and 28. For a fuller discussion of this, see the Epilogue to my Article No. 9: A Sacrifice in Heaven, where 10:37 is also discussed.

If Licona wants context, he should survey all the references in all the epistle writers to the expected "coming" of their Christ Jesus. Not a single passage contains any suggestion of a return. Indeed, the sentiments strongly convey that this is the first time anyone will be seeing him. Here are a few (from the NIV):

- Philippians 3:20: "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ."
- 2 Thessalonians 1:7: "This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels."
- 1 Peter 1:7: "...that your faith may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."

Denying the Faith

Licona devotes a short paragraph to my second "smoking gun," namely Minucius Felix. As the reader may know, I have lately devoted more words to this single document than just about anything else in the entire record. I don't intend to repeat them here, but will refer the reader to other files. Licona is in over his head here, since his brief retort doesn't seem to be able to grasp, or express, the issue:

[After enumerating the pagan list of horrific accusations against the Christians] "...[Felix] adds, "For in that you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the neighbourhood of the truth, in thinking either that a criminal deserved, or that an earthly being was able, to be believed God." In other words, Felix says that Christians neither worship a criminal nor his cross. For a criminal is unworthy of worship and an earthly being cannot be thought of as God..."

Exactly. Licona has stated the case against Minucius Felix being an orthodox Christian. Felix denies the accusation that Christians (or at least, proper Christians according to his circles of Christianity) worship a criminal (the crucified man) and his cross, and the reasons he gives for not doing such a thing are because a criminal is unworthy of worship and an earthly being cannot be thought of as God. He's denying the accusation. It's false to say that Christians do so, and this is why. What every apologist and commentator has done with this passage is read the opposite into it: Oh no, we do worship this man and his cross, but that's because he wasn't a criminal and he wasn't an earthly being. But these statements are not in the text. They are not even implied in the text. In fact, what he subsequently says on both counts, what can be found in the surrounding context, illustrates that the worship of man and cross is denied, pure and simple, that the accusation of such worship is regarded and treated in the same vein as all the other reprehensible accusations.

Licona concludes:

"...By no means is Felix saying that Christians believe Jesus was a criminal or that he was merely a human—or that he never existed."

That's not the issue. Felix does not directly pronounce on whether the the man in question was a criminal, although his words seem to suggest that he accepts the designation, and it is certainly clear he assumes the man was human. In any case, he also does not pronounce on the question of whether he thinks the man existed or not. This is not his point. He may be aware that some groups, as the accusation infers, do in fact worship a crucified man and his cross, but this is not entirely clear. His bottom line is to deny the appropriateness of such a practice, which he does in no uncertain terms. But if any apologist, representing any group calling itself "Christian," could deny and denigrate the worship of a crucified man as part of his faith, this virtually rules out that the movement (which was a wildly diverse and uncoordinated one during the first two centuries) could have begun with such an event and such a belief. That is what makes this passage in Minucius Felix a "smoking gun."

For those wishing to go into depth on this question, I refer them to the two parts of my Response to GakuseiDon: CritiquesGDon and CritiquesGDon-2, and my follow-up debate with him on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board: DebatesFelix. The latter contains two postings in particular (#3 & 4) which I consider incisive.


There are other things in Licona's critique which merit rebuttal, but which I will leave to others: such as his arguments against Flemming in regard to opinions about religion and the harm it has caused, against Richard Carrier in regard to evidence for the validity of atheism and his analysis of the Gospel of Mark, and most of all against Richard Dawkins wherein Licona supports creationism and speaks of the "flaws" in evolutionary theory, backed, of course, by "a list of more than 400 scientists." Here, he indulges in that reprehensible and dishonest practice which is endemic to anti-evolutionists: taking quotes from (truly) leading scientists out of context, so that it looks like they are denying or expressing deep misgivings about evolution itself, when they are doing nothing of the sort. I would recommend to the reader the latest issue of "Skeptical Inquirer" (Nov-Dec 2005), devoted in large part to "Evolution and the ID Wars." One of the articles, "Why Scientists Get So Angry When Dealing with ID Proponents" by Jason Rosenhouse, is devoted to exposing what the writer calls a shameless and maliciously misleading practice.

In his wrap-up, Licona speaks of the historian making historical decisions, and asks:

- Which explanation accounts for all of the facts?
- Which explanation accounts for all of the facts without having to strain them?

To me, his answer boils down to "the explanation that we are all familiar with, that has been accepted for the longest time, by the greatest number of scholars, the one that puts the least strain on our traditions, our sensibilities, our faith." I prefer to put it differently:

- How much in the early Christian record outside the Gospels (and even within) is inconsistent with an historical Jesus?
- How much in the early Christian record as a whole is consistent with the Jesus Myth theory?

My work, and that of others, has been to demonstrate that the principle of consistency rules in favor of Jesus mythicism, that it best, and without strain, solves the problems inherent in the old paradigms, and accounts for the great variety of features we find in the record of the first two centuries, especially when taken in conjunction with the beliefs and philosophies of the time. (As Richard Carrier has put it, it wins the Argument to the Best Explanation.) The Jesus Myth theory forms a coherent whole, all its parts complement one another, and nothing is ad hoc. In contrast, the claim for an historical Jesus must deal with a host of inconsistences, missing elements, contradictions and absurdities. Apologists don't have enough fingers to plug all the holes in the dyke, and they are constantly scrambling to explain this or that problem, this or that incongruity, this or that piece of contrary evidence, and mostly in ad hoc fashion. From the apologetic point of view, if Christianity is true, let alone the word of God, this situation should not exist; certainly the record should not be as chaotic and problem-ridden as it is. No mythicist I am aware of has ever claimed ironclad proof. What I claim is "balance of probability" when a dispassionate, un-predisposed, non-confessional survey of the evidence is undertaken.

Which leads me to my final section....

Denying the Jesus Myth Theory

If there is one "argument" that apologists, especially amateur ones, use the most, it is the "appeal to authority." The vast majority of New Testament scholars of every sort accept that Jesus existed, and thus it's a slam dunk. I don't need to detail why that majority exists; it is simply a given in the field, a field populated by believing Christians and those who have invested their careers in the existence of such a man. (I am not saying that such people are incapable of logical thought, simply that they have an inbuilt bias which can make them unwilling to exercise it.) But the argument goes further than that, and Licona appeals to this too:

While professional scholars have paid no attention to Doherty's work, they have certainly responded to the hypothesis he proposes, namely, the idea that Jesus never existed.

And he gives us examples of that "response" (I'll deal with Michael Grant separately):

- Gunther Bornkamm: "to doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all...was reserved for an unrestrained, tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worth while to enter here."
- Rudolf Bultmann: "Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement."
- Paul Maier: "The total evidence [for the existence of Jesus] is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus' existence. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by "the village atheist," bloggers on the internet, or such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation."
- Michael Martin: "Wells' thesis is controversial and not widely accepted."
- Robert van Voorst: "Contemporary New Testament scholars have typically viewed their [i.e., Jesus mythers] arguments as so weak or bizarre that they relegate them to footnotes, or often ignore them completely."

The problem is, such responses are not critiques. They are little more than declarations of faith, offended at the very idea being proposed. Maier is practically foaming at the mouth. (Ironicallybut revealinglythe one atheist in the bunch, Michael Martin, is the only one to make an unemotional, non-judgmental comment.) They in no way address the arguments of the mythicist case. This is not scholarship, or an appeal to scholarship, since none is presented. It is certainly not neutrality or the scientific approach to a thesis, and any spirit of inquiry is lamentably lacking. With one or two exceptions, the few scholars over the years who have actually produced a critique (it is usually a chapter in a book, if that), do not deal with the subject in any depth; they show little understanding of the extent and multi-faceted nature of the mythicist case, and they all regularly recycle the same old weak and timeworn objections that mythicists have long answered. As well, a good number of these critiques are quite dated, written before the recent advances in New Testament scholarship at the mainstream level: insights into the nature and content of Q, the pervasive extent of midrash found in the Gospels, revelations provided by the Nag Hammadi documents and new studies of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha. The mythicist case over the last ten years (including from myself and Robert Price, both "amateur" and "professional" if you like) has kept pace with these developments and discoveries, but there has been no fresh attempt by historicists to defend against it. The allegation that scholarship has dealt adequately with the Jesus Myth theory, much less that it has demolished it, is poppycock. The claim revolves like an echo around a circular chamber. No one knows who started it or whether it has any substance. Consider Michael Grant, whom Licona quotes:

"To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars'. In recent years 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus'—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary."
Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels

This quote is from Grant's Appendix (p.200), wherein he devotes two paragraphs to the question. He wrote in 1977, which is not only before those advances in New Testament scholarship I spoke of, but before a few of those rebuttals modern defenders of Jesus like to point to for their claim of demolition. On the latter, I quote from my Postscript article:

Something like The Evidence for Jesus (1986) by R. T. France, Vice-Principal of the London Bible College, hardly fills that role, and is devoted to illuminating the figure of an historical Jesus—a largely orthodox one—not just to defending his existence. As a defense it is quite ineffectual, taking no account (since it largely predates them) of recent insights into Q, the pervasive midrashic content of Mark, the modeling of Mark's passion story on the traditional tale of the Suffering Righteous One, and much else that has given ongoing support to the no-Jesus theory. Graham Stanton, in his The Gospels and Jesus (1989), devotes a chapter to addressing the views of mythicist G. A. Wells. Stanton's 'case' against Wells' position is little more than a citation of Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny, and an appeal to the authority that comes with the majority's acceptance "that Jesus existed." Ian Wilson, in Jesus: The Evidence (1984), does much the same, first acknowledging the uncertainty and contradiction in the early evidence, and then having recourse to the same trio of ancient 'witnesses.' All of them raise points that show little or no understanding for the depth and sophistication of the mythicist position....

Getting back to Michael Grant, on what basis then does he make his 1977 comment, "it has again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rate scholars"? Who are these scholars? He doesn't say. In fact, he is merely quoting the opinions of others here who predate himself by one or two decades. But we have to go back into the early 20th century to find anyone who could possibly fill the bill, the most extensive being Maurice Goguel who defended the existence of Jesus in Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History (1926). In some cases Goguel's arguments are reasonably competent, but always answerable; in other cases, they can be naive in the extreme, arguing from assumptions that are locked into the historicist paradigm, making his methodology circular; I doubt that the mythicist case even in that period could not have pointed such weaknesses out. To think that Goguel in any way serves to derail modern Jesus mythicism is laughable. Others before Grant's time include authors who wrote in 1912, 1914 and 1938, hardly giants in their field or playing with a modern deck. Thus, Grant is simply blowing smoke in repeating the claim of "time and time again" and "annihilation." Where is the "abundant evidence to the contrary"? Doctored passages in Josephus (whom, by the way, Goguel regards as unreliable, like most scholars of his era)? Second century Tacitus? Or perhaps the great wealth of unmistakeable reference to an historical Jesus in the non-Gospel documents. And yet these are precisely the sort of comments that are passed around like holy scripture, that form a kind of "appeal to authority" in themselves. They are based on a chimera. The only way modern mainstream scholarship is going to prove its case against the Jesus Myth theory is to present it. It has to stop claiming victory based on nothing, stop burying its head in the sand, stop choking on its own ad hominem insults against a proposition that has been frequently, competently, and honestly presented for well over a century. If it is so deficient, so bizarre, so insane, it ought to be an easy task.

On the other hand, if Mike Licona's critique is any indicator of the proof that can be mounted, it is going to be anything but an easy task.

*       *       *


A week before this response to Mike Licona was completed, I posted the following on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. It speaks for itself:

Jesus Seminar Magazine “Fourth R” Refuses $5000 Offer to Debate Jesus Myth Theory

I have taken note of the latest round of discussion over the Jesus Myth question (“Jesus Historical?”), and am amazed at how much mileage some people still think to squeeze out of the timeworn appeal to authority. Those who dump on the mythicist theory rely so much on the principle that if the majority believes—or doesn’t believe—in something, this automatically makes them right, and justifies the one making the appeal rejecting the minority view a priori and refusing even to investigate it. This is so blatantly fallacious and unacceptable that I wonder that any supposedly intelligent person can subscribe to it. If this were the case, we’d all still believe that the sun went around the earth, or that continental drift (Wegener was dumped on by all in the geology field when he first proposed it in 1915) was a crock. Ironically, when we put the shoe on the other foot, and note that the vast majority of scientists (excluding the “science” graduates of bible colleges) subscribe with total confidence to the Darwinian case (with subsequent refinements) for evolution, the faith-driven will not accept any ‘appeal to authority’ in this regard.

Anyway, I’m not here to argue this issue. It’s a waste of time. But I thought I would inform the Board of a recent proposal made to the editor of the Fourth R, the magazine of the Westar Institute, the umbrella organization for the Jesus Seminar. This person, who is familiar with and has admired my work (no telling the crazy things some people will support, right?) noted to the editor that the Fourth R has a tradition of presenting some pretty liberal viewpoints for examination. He offered to donate $5000 to the magazine if they would print a substantial article by myself on the Jesus Myth question, accompanied in the same issue by an equal counter-article by any scholar of their choosing, to be followed in a subsequent issue by shorter rebuttals by both myself and the other scholar. (This offer, by the way, was made without my prompting or even my knowledge, until he informed me after it was made.)

This was the response he received:

I'm not presently inclined to devote an issue to questioning the existence of Jesus. The topic is a perennial one among skeptics. If someone wants to doubt the existence of Jesus, my experience is that no evidence or argument will change his mind. Such is the nature of skepticism. But the existence of Jesus is not a living issue among historical Jesus scholars. Perhaps it should be, but it just isn't, at least at present. With so many other living issues to explore, I don't think it would be responsible to devote the limited space in the 4R to your suggestion.

I am constantly being bombarded with the view that the mythicist case has been dealt with and discredited by regular scholarship “time and time again.” This is a sham. To the extent that any of them have devoted thought or space to the question, their responses are shallow, their arguments weak, their sheer understanding of the mythicist case is abysmal, and they have nothing new to say that hasn’t been trotted out a hundred times before and which the mythicist case has more than adequately dealt with. Michael Grant (who addressed the question by devoting one dismissive paragraph to it in the Appendix of his Jesus book, and that in 1977) is no exception. Graham Stanton is no exception. And Paula Fredriksen is certainly no exception, as I have demonstrated in my website article Challenging Doherty.

If R. T. France is supposed to be the most effective voice in the history of opposition to the Jesus Myth theory, then it is badly in need of a new champion. Personally, I think Goguel was the most substantive of the lot, but he is very dated, and if anyone thinks that orthodoxy should rest on the laurels of defenders almost a century old, this speaks to their own naivete about how far the Jesus Myth theory has progressed since then. (Richard Carrier, in his review of my book, The Jesus Puzzle, noted that it is long overdue that orthodox scholarship provide a proper counter-case to Jesus mythicism.) I wrote this in my “Postscript” article (in the Main Articles) on The Jesus Puzzle website:

Something like The Evidence for Jesus (1986) by R. T. France, Vice-Principal of the London Bible College, hardly fills that role, and is devoted to illuminating the figure of an historical Jesus—a largely orthodox one—not just to defending his existence. As a defense it is quite ineffectual, taking no account (since it largely predates them) of recent insights into Q, the pervasive midrashic content of Mark, the modeling of Mark's passion story on the traditional tale of the Suffering Righteous One, and much else that has given ongoing support to the no-Jesus theory. Graham Stanton, in his The Gospels and Jesus (1989), devotes a chapter to addressing the views of mythicist G. A. Wells. Stanton's 'case' against Wells' position is little more than a citation of Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny (discussed below)—and an appeal to the authority that comes with the majority's acceptance "that Jesus existed." Ian Wilson, in Jesus: The Evidence (1984), does much the same, first acknowledging the uncertainty and contradiction in the early evidence, and then having recourse to the same trio of ancient 'witnesses.' All of them raise points that show little or no understanding for the depth and sophistication of the mythicist position. J. D. G. Dunn, in his one-page "Note on Professor Wells' View" in The Evidence for Jesus (1985), falls back on the old timeworn explanations for Paul's silence on a human figure. He, too, asks questions that show he is trapped within the old paradigm and unable to grasp how standard objections to the mythicist position dissolve, as do many of the longstanding problems in New Testament research, when the new paradigm of an evolving historical Jesus is applied to the evidence.

One of the leading avant-garde publications in the public eye was offered a substantial amount of money to take the opportunity to demonstrate that the mythicist case hasn’t a leg to stand on, yet they refused, despite, I am sure, being aware of the increased press and attention and number of proponents it has gained over the last decade or so. If they were concerned with discrediting dangerous or crazy ideas infecting the religious atmosphere of our time, particularly something so allegedly easy to discredit, one might think that devoting an issue to this task would be good idea, especially with the financial incentive being offered. I am sure the apologists on this Board will come up with all sorts of rationalizations for the refusal, all ultimately based on the same appeal to authority and smug reliability to be placed in the majority attitude, but to me it smacks of nothing so much as fear and hesitation over opening a Pandora’s Box of disturbing ideas which might further undermine the foundations of their own world.

Last evening, while watching the TV program “Bones” I was amazed when the main character said: “It is thought that Christ, if he existed, was….” And later in the program, in discussing ‘skepticism’ in another connection, the characters had a short exchange about “the Christ Myth theory”! What is gratifying, and very different, about the situation in regard to the Christ Myth theory these days over previous ones, is that its possibility has permeated into the public consciousness and public expression in a way as never before. In many people’s minds it has become a viable option to be considered. It would seem that the subject has moved inside the fringe, despite the tawdry incompetence and uncredentialed ignorance of those charlatans like myself who have been partly responsible for generating the buzz. (Robert Price, a member of the Seminar, must be excepted, of course, as he has credentials to burn.) And yet the editor of the Fourth R won’t give it the time of day because it isn’t worth anyone’s attention?

I find it particular ironic that he should accuse skeptics of something which the orthodox community has always been notoriously guilty of in spades, and has been demonstrated “time and time again” on various threads of this Forum.

Earl Doherty

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