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Mythicists: Did Nazareth Exist?

I am interrupting my thread on the relationship of Jesus to the Jewish law (I haven’t gotten very far: I’m still on Marcion!) because of what is most pressing on my mind right now, the debate I’m having this evening with Robert Price.  It is here in Milwaukee sponsored by a group called the Milwaukee Mythicists.  It’s a small group of people committed to, or (for some of them) at least attracted by, the idea that Jesus was not a real human being but is a myth invented by his later followers.  I suppose roughly speaking, most Mythicists are a subgroup of people who are atheist.

Originally, for most of these people, Jesus was understood to be a divine being who lived in the heavenly realm (“outer space,” as some of them put it) who was crucified by demonic powers.  Later followers of Jesus historicized him and made him, in their myths, into a human being.  And then the stories emerged about him that we now have in our Gospels.  They are based principally on characters and events in the Old Testament, told in a new way now about a man that the story-tellers invented out of whole-cloth. The apostle Paul doesn’t know any of these stories.  That’s why Paul almost certainly, they claim, did not know anything about a historical Jesus.

My talk is only going to be thirty minutes, followed by Bob’s talk of thirty minutes.  These then are to be followed by an hour of questions back and forth, followed by an hour of questions from the audience.  So it’s a three hour event.  (!)  But I am allowed to lay out my case only in thirty minutes.  That’s a bit tricky.

I have decided to focus on the positive arguments that there almost certainly was a historical man Jesus about whom we can say some important things.  I will only be addressing the Mythicists’ own arguments briefly, in order to show why I don’t find them at all persuasive.  To do so I have chosen just two arguments that are commonly made.

The first is that there could never have been a Jesus of Nazareth because there was no such place as Nazareth.  Mythicists often argue …

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The Best Manuscripts and Social Justice: Readers’ Mailbag October 23, 2016
Did Jesus Exist? My Debate with Robert Price

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 22, 2016

    Did synagogues exist in Nazareth before the destruction of the Temple? That is the Nazareth argument I usually hear.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      There was probalby not a synagogue building, no. But that was true for most places. A “synagogue” was a gathering of Jews, not a building.

  2. Avatar
    unique  October 22, 2016

    i just want to know if jesus do not exist what have i been preaching all these year where did my message
    come from how do that work in side of me

  3. Avatar
    VincitOmniaVeritas  October 23, 2016

    Thank you Bart for pointing this out about Nazareth. This assertion about Nazareth “not existing” or being “uninhabited” in Jesus’ time is even more fringe than the “mythicist theory “in general, and not accepted by any archaeologist or historian in this area that I have come across. Even many of the “mythicists” themselves have realized this and rejected the notion I think. As you said above, there is evidence of the area being inhabited near to Jesus’ time. Jack Finnegan, in his “Archaeology of the New Testament”, states that Nazareth was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period (pp.44-46).

    Even from a logical standpoint, the claim is even more ridiculous considering there is even more archaeological evidence for habitation of communities extremely close to Nazareth in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (including Jesus’s time), such as Daburiyya (biblical Daberath) and the area around Mount Tabor, which is only about 2 km from Nazareth.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 23, 2016

    I’m eager to learn about your debate experience, and hopefully, be able to see it! But right now, I have an OT question.

    Do you agree with something another poster said recently – that Jesus *must have* been a compelling preacher?

    I don’t think that was necessary. Here’s why. You’ve explained the importance of this: at least a few of his closest disciples believed, before he was crucified, that he was the Messiah. After his death – when he was obviously no longer around to preach – they became convinced, through dreams or visions, that he’d been resurrected. *They* took it from there – convincing themselves, and others, that the resurrection “fulfilled a prophecy” about the Messiah.

    I don’t think his appeal to those disciples had necessarily depended on his being a good preacher! When he told them his apocalyptic theories, they might have been hearing them for the first time – and they bought into the message, revering him as the one who’d delivered it. As I see it, we have no way of knowing whether his “preaching” really attracted crowds in Galilee; whether it did or didn’t was ultimately irrelevant.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2016

      I think he must have been compelling for his small group of followers; but I don’t think he was necessarily compelling for lots of others.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 23, 2016

      “When he told them his apocalyptic theories, they might have been hearing them for the first time”
      Yeah, so I think I should be more clear as to why I think Jesus was a compelling preacher. And this is one of the reasons. I find it very difficult to believe that Peter, John, James, et al. were hearing all of Jesus’ apocalyptic talk for the first time. The sense I get from reading the primary documents — in particular Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls — is that much of the Levant was already rife with eschatological fervor. In fact, in 4CE, upon the deposition of the Tetrarch Archelaus in Judea, a group of proto-Zealots in Galilee, led by the so-called Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Pharisee, rebelled against Roman hegemony, but was put down by the Romans. And this rebellion seems to have had apocalyptic and eschatological overtones. Furthermore, this all happened with the living memory of Jesus and his followers (or at least within the living memories of those only one generation older than them). So there was already a precedent for such apocalyptic scuttlebutt and expection long before Jesus started his whole thing. My sense is that when Jesus approached Peter et al. to join his movement, they were already steeped in the apocalyptic, eschatological Zeitgeist of their time and place.

      Anyway, this is my long-winded explanation for why it probably wasn’t so much the content of what Jesus said that impressed people as much as the way he said it. When George Whitefield went preaching across America, fomenting the First Great Awakening, it’s not like he was preaching anything radically new. The only thing that was radically new was *how* he preached it.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 25, 2016

        You certainly may be right – you obviously know way more about that era than I do!

        Since I’m not constrained by any religious beliefs, I tend to have speculations that are all over the map.

        At times I speculate that Jesus may have decided to start a ministry of his own *before* he trekked to Judea to observe what John the Baptist was doing – he wanted to get “tips”!

        But at other times I speculate that he’d known nothing about apocalyptic ideas – he’d trekked to Judea for what he’d thought might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience of a Passover Week in Jerusalem, and that was where he *heard of* John. (I don’t know whether John’s activities in that area would actually have coincided with any Passover Week.)

        • talmoore
          talmoore  October 27, 2016

          Being as staunch an atheist as you’ll probably ever meet, I’m completely unconstrained by any religious beliefs as well. In fact, I’m a social scientist, and as a social scientist I usually approach historical questions with an eye to thinking about how average, normal, run-of-the-mill human beings would behave without knowing anything that we, living in 2016, would know about the intervening history.

          For example, when I imagine John the Baptist going out to the Jordan River, proclaiming that Jews must immerse themselves in its waters *right now, without any hesitation what-so-ever!* I must remember that I know something that John didn’t know: namely, I know that his dire sense of urgency — while reasonably warranted within John’s limited knowledge of the future — looks like utter paranoid lunacy to me, because of my knowledge of the 2,000 intervening years that separates us. In other words, I have one important advantage over John the Baptist in that I have access to an integral bit of information that he did not. I know that there was no need to rush, because after 2,000 years the Eschaton has yet to happen.

          What does that tell me? It tells me that John the Baptist made a prediction of future events based on his limited knowledge of his past and present, and, as it turns out, he was wrong. It’s not John’s fault. John didn’t know any better, because the future, for John, hadn’t happened yet. But for us, however, John’s future HAS happened, and we can see that he was wrong! Once we can see that we have this advantage over men like John the Baptist, then their seemingly irrational behaviors may begin to look more reasonable to us.

          A perfect example of this is the relationship between Jesus and his followers. We have the advantage of knowing that Jesus was going to be arrested and executed. They didn’t, because they didn’t know the future. But we know their future! So to us it may seem irrational to follow a guy that we know was just going to be arrested and killed. But they didn’t know that. For them the future was wide open. They were free to speculate about any manner of future possibilities. So in hindsight, we can see how Jesus was probably just a typical cult leader and religious huckster who died an ignominious death, but for Jesus’ followers, they had to go through two stages: First stage, they saw Jesus as a powerful, influential figure with a grand future ahead of him; second stage, he was arrested and crucified like a common miscreant. How does someone who goes through those stages reconcile such opposing experiences? Well, we’ve seen how they reconciled them. They created Christianity!

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  October 28, 2016

            I can agree with all of this.

            But I still think it’s possible that either no one in *Nazareth and the similarly small hamlets near it* had heard of the apocalyptic theory before they heard it from Jesus, *or* that they’d concluded nothing was going to happen in the near future, and Jesus convinced them otherwise. Perhaps by repeating John’s claim that “the ax was already at the tree” – whether or not he attributed it to John. They may have believed either John or Jesus had received a direct revelation from God, whether or not either of them ever claimed that.

            So I’m still not convinced that Jesus had to be an especially compelling preacher. Not sure he *wasn’t*, but I don’t think it was necessary. They might have become enthusiastic about the *idea*, and revered him because he was the *messenger*.

  5. Avatar
    Rogers  October 23, 2016

    So Miguel posted on Facebook a picture of Bart and he standing together. I took the occasion to post some good spirited affirmations for Bart – “Go Bart go! Take the Mythicist down!”.

    Bob Price was the only one to click the like button on my posting. 🙂

    On the argumentation side of things: The chronological progression of the canonical gosepels, and then the evolution of proto-orthodoxy Christianity in ensuing years, indicates a beginnings from a fairly tractable preacher secenario, and given multi-attestation of the sayings of this teacher, a seeming probable historical origin. And then things get more fantastic, embellished, and elevated (in respect to divine matters), as time progresses.

    This doesn’t seem to jive with a Mythicist position that the origins of Jesus began with a mythical divine figure that was then historicised. The actual chronological progression of the surviving writings tend to indicate a reverse process (historical roots and then mythological embellishment).

  6. Avatar
    hgb55  October 24, 2016

    Bart, hard-core Mythicist Frank Zindler, who edited and published the books written by Nazareth skeptic (or denier) Rene Salm, told me on several occasions that the current city now known as Nazareth was misnamed by Helena on her famous trip to Palestine from 326-328 CE. According to what Zindler told me in person on two occasions, a local resident or tour guide in Palestine knew that Helena was looking for Nazareth so he fooled her into believing that the current site is Nazareth. So according to this claim there had to have been a village at the current site of Nazareth in 326 CE but it was not actually called Nazareth. It’s original name is unknown. The city now known as Nazareth was misnamed by Helena after she fell for the fraud or joke.

    In the forward to the book “NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes and the Invented Town of Jesus,” Zindler wrote:

    “Like many other holy places of the New Testament, Nazareth seems to have been “discovered” by Constantine’s mother, with the aid of willing-to-please tour guides.”

    Strangely, Zindler does not seem aware how this damages the claims made by Rene Salm since the Nazareth where Jesus may have lived could still have existed. It just isn’t where the current Nazareth is located.

    So you see Bart, the claim that Nazareth never existed can’t be falsified. Every excuse and speculation that can be invented is thrown out there by the Mythicists to keep disbelieving. It’s called motivated skepticism and it’s a classic technique used by people who advocate pseudoscience and pseudohistory.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      Ha! And what is his evidence that Helena tried to locate Nazareth but found the wrong place???

  7. Avatar
    mwbaugh  October 25, 2016

    I wonder sometimes why there isn’t more skepticism among the mythicists. I suspect their methods could be used to “disprove” the existence of Peter, James, Paul, or anyone mentioned in the New Testament. Even Pilate has very little evidence to verify his existence.

    And why stop there? Can we prove that Papias existed? Igantius? Polycarp? I suspect that a dedicated enough person could come up with a set of arguments that almost any Christian figure pre-Constantine was a myth. (It might actually be a fun exercise.)

  8. Avatar
    rburos  October 25, 2016

    (I try to find a fitting thread to post my ill-timed questions in order to not come from left field. Being as this is a ‘Did X exist?’ question please forgive me for inserting here.)

    Watching Teaching Company lectures by Amy Jill-Levine and she said that she (among others) didn’t think King David actually existed. Is this a significant issue for OT scholars? If so, how do you fall on it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2016

      I think there may have been some king that the David stories are based on at least. But I’m not deeply committed to the view. The sources are so much later…

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 29, 2016

        Wasn’t there a significant archaeological discovery a few years ago, that supposedly proved the existence of a royal “House of David,” or something like that? Not substantiating any of the stories told about him, just the fact that a king by that name had existed?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 30, 2016

          Yes, it is the Tel Dan Stele: you can google it to see what it tells us.

  9. Avatar
    roycecil  October 25, 2016

    Mythicists can claim their lineage from St. Thomas 🙂 ! He said unless he sees his wounds and puts his finger in the wounds he wont believe that Jesus resurrected. So it would have to have some evidence to convince St. Thomas. Do mythicists for eg. believe other historical figures? For eg. Do they believe Socrates existed ? Could it not be possible that he is a myth after all ? Plato could have made it all up ? The oldest manuscript of Plato we have is from 895 AD . So there is more chance that they made it all up. Is that the same criterion that mythicist apply to Jesus that they apply to other historical figures?

    If we apply the same rigor that Mythicist want to apply to Christ to other historical figures, do you know who else among the prominent historical people of antiquity we have to consider as myth ?

    Another question I have is , assuming Jesus is a myth are there any earlier references of the Jesus myth before AD 50 ? Why not ? What makes AD 0-30 the perfect time for the creation of Jesus myth. And who in their opinion created this myth ?

    Will you be posting the video to the debate in the blog Dr. Ehrman ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2016

      I’m not sure what they’d say about Socrates. On a lack of written records, I suppose they’d say most people couldn’t write.

      • Avatar
        hgb55  October 27, 2016

        Bart, regarding Socrates, mythicist Frank Zindler, the former president of the American Atheists organization after Madalyn Murray O’Hair was murdered, told me several times that Socrates never existed. He cited all the reasons … Plato invented him, no writings from Socrates, no good eyewitnesses, etc.

        In a chapter titled “Cognitive Dissonance: The Ehrman-ZIndler Correspondence,” (2013) Zindler wrote: “It is this very fact of the absence of proof-facts that puts the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth into a disputable position. It puts him into the same boat as Socrates, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, and now, apparently even Mohammed.”

        Of interest to you, just two weeks ago Zindler told his coworkers in Columbus that he has just gotten a new preliminary book manuscript from Robert Price. Price apparently analyzes all your published writings about Jesus and refutes them and exposes your contradictions from what was told. Zindler is editing the book and will publish it probably sometime in the next 18 months. Zindler is editor and publisher for the American Atheist organization and has published several of Robert Prices’s books.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 28, 2016

          Yes, Frank was at the conference. I like him very much. But we don’t agree at *all*!!

  10. Avatar
    AlanGoldman  October 28, 2016

    As a trained student of history and the historical method, I think that the mythicists make the fundamental error of “overplaying their hand” by committing a logical fallacy: from their fundamental desire to show that the nature of Jesus’ personality and role was inflated and “conflated” by syncretist and cross-cultural religious traditions about archetypes of, e.g., other “dying and resurrected gods,” etc., the mythicists overstep their argument to assert that the historical existence of Jesus himself was a fabrication woven out of whole cloth. For instance, while it is likely true that some references to Jesus found in Josephus’ writing may in fact be subsequently interpolated Christian passages inflating Josephus’ supposed comments about Jesus’ extraordinary or divine nature, this does not discredit the basic statements about Jesus that Josephus DID make. Indeed, just the opposite would logically seem to be the case, for “the greater includes the lesser”. Thus it seems to me that in trying to “prove” more than an at least arguably colorable contention that the nature of the significance of Jesus that has been passed down through the Gospels is an ahistorical distortion or exaggeration, mythicists thus impair their credibility to their own detriment.

    Do you concur in this sort of logical disambiguation of the mythicist position?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2016

      Yes, that’s pretty much my view too.

      • Avatar
        AlanGoldman  October 28, 2016

        The mythicists, then, shouldn’t take such heated exception to your (and my) position about their arguments; we’re NOT denigrating as being unworthy of debate the underlying, fundamental contention that a distorted form of Jesus’ persona has been transmitted through the Gospels, etc.; we’re just adhering to fundamental principles of the historical method in rejecting their extravagant, and unprofessional, claims.

  11. Avatar
    jlhaxton  October 28, 2016

    Being a new atheist I am trying to figure all of this out. So is the non-mytisicts stance that Jesus of the bible did exist and did all the bible or gospels said he did? Or there was a guy names Jesus that lived at the time and was a preacher of sorts. If so what did he do? To what extent did he do or not do what the bible says? Dr. Ehrman is there a book of yours that would kinda wrap your thoughts on this? I am sorry but it is very confusing to me. I am trying to see it as a black and white thing. Either Jesus of the bible existed or he didn’t. Any direct would be MORE than appreciated. Thanks JL

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2016

      Yes, this is what I discuss in my book Did Jesus Exist.

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 30, 2016

    I used to entertain the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was a composite of several “pseudo-messiahs” of the period. Your arguments for the existence of Jesus have convinced me that such an explanation is not necessary, but I wonder — is there a school of mythicists who argue that point of view?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2016

      Not that I’m aware of in quite that form, though many do think he was an amalgam of sundry figures

  13. Avatar
    Benevolent  September 25, 2017

    I’ve only been researching your work for a few days but the impression I get is that either the Bible is an inspired mythologizing of real and fictional events or it’s uninspired mythologizing of real and fictional events. Either way it’s mythologizing, but…as the agnostic doesn’t know if God exists…there’s the possibility that this mythologizing was overseen by a Divine being.

    The scriptures are highly symbolic from beginning to end. And the Bible is captivating for many simply on the grounds of its symbolic unity and consistency. The question in this context becomes, “does it even matter if such and such literally happened or if Jesus actually said that?”. The Bible is full of stories that would have had no eyewitness. The one that comes to mind at present is the conversation between God and Satan in the book of Job. To impress this point even more, both Jesus and Paul were emphatic that it’s the Spiritual meaning that counts. That the letter kills. The book of Genesis is symbolically unified with the entire Bible and so on. In one of the Psalms it says the sum of the word is truth. …that the context is the entire word. I’m not saying this is correct, just that it is in line with a treatment of the Bible as meaningful mythology…..a la Joseph Campbell.

  14. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  April 5, 2018

    “I suppose roughly speaking, most Mythicists are a subgroup of people who are atheist.”

    The side seemingly more given to conspiracy theories. They remind me of Fundamentalist Evangelicals who are convinced Roman Catholicism is a direct continuation of the Babylonian worship of Nimrod and his mother. And who take Alexander Hislop’s mid-1800’s book “The Two Babylons” as the final word on the subject…

    Are you familiar with that work or with the claims of some fringe (not too fringe though, sad to say) Evangelicals that say Catholicism is ancient paganism dressed up in Christian garb?

  15. Avatar
    Baligomingo  February 2, 2020

    Well, I am coming lat to this party, but I have to say I find the Nazareth question interesting, if taken by itself not particularly important.

    Why not look at this from a different angle – that the gospel writers are overwriting the background of Jesus on purpose to accomplish a number of goals. First – it really is the first Log Cabin story isn’t it? Savior born to the poor, whether in a manger in Bethlehem or in whatever Nazareth was at the time! Abe Lincoln would have loved it.

    At the same time, the author is clearly linking Jesus to Messianic texts like Micah. We get him to Bethlehem because “David” and we put him in Nazareth because of the possible “Branch” language which is suppose is also ultimately Davidic. Or we are rendering the later name for the group connected to “Keeping” literal by making it a place.

    I realize in the end, after doing or reading the scholarship, we all have gut feelings about what seems likely – for me, I look at the idea contained in the birth narratives that Joseph is from, or at least claimed to be from – the Davidic line and Mary from a priestly family as possibly the most historically true part of the story – as these are qualities required of the Messiah, and would have been looked for. The gospel says Jesus could read, and that seems likely too if he comes from a priestly family – even one of the lower or poorer priests. Which would also explain the family’s actual connection to Jerusalem, which is where they are seem to be centered by time of Jesus’ death.

    So – i’m for: Nazareth did exist – as of course did Jesus – but ALL the birth geography is essentially invented for other purposes.

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