Scientists and “Rationalists” Getting the Historical Jesus Completely Wrong

Scientists and “Rationalists” Getting the Historical Jesus Completely Wrong


Jerry Coyne Gets Rather Upset.  Again.

Jerry Coyne is a professor of biology.  Given that he is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, the author of many papers on evolutionary biology in esteemed journals like Nature and Science and is the co-author of the key text Speciation, it’s fairly clear that he is a very good biologist.  And, as such, just the kind of guy to write the popular science book Why Evolution Is True and to debunk the ridiculous pseudo science that is Creationism.  What Jerry Coyne is definitely not, however, is a historian.

But this last fact has not kept Coyne from opining long, loud and often on his Why Evolution is True blog on matters historical, usually indulging in some ripe New Atheist Bad History in the process.  Unlike virtually every scholar with any background in the relevant historical training, Coyne has fully embraced the fringe Jesus Myth thesis – the idea that there was no historical Jesus at all.  While being happy to note the overwhelming consensus of biologists on evolution, Coyne scorns the equally overwhelming scholarly consensus that a historical Jesus most likely existed.  As a professor of biology, he knows better than all those silly historical scholars.

So he recently got highly agitated about a brief article from the BBC entitled “Jesus ‘not a real person’ many believe”.   You’d think that, as a Jesus Myther, Coyne would be delighted by an article reporting that according to a recent Church of England surveyfour in 10 people did not believe Jesus was a real person, with a quarter of 18 to 34 year olds believing he was a mythical or fictional character”.  And initially he was.  But further reflection led to this odd outburst:

But then I realized that I was probably wrong about what the article was saying. Those 40% weren’t mythicists who had considered the evidence, I think, but simply people who don’t REALIZE that Jesus was a real person, and haven’t thought much about the issue.  That is, they didn’t consider the writings of Josephus or of mythicists like Richard Carrier, and then made a decision that there was no historical Jesus-person. Rather, they are just oblivious.

Exactly how Coyne came to this conclusion I have no idea.  It’s probable that few of the 40% had done any in-depth research and very few are likely to have read the works of Coyne’s favourite fringe pseudo historical theorist, the notorious Richard Carrier.  But why this would be a problem and exactly what “oblivious” is meant to mean here is a mystery.  After all, they’d obviously arrived at this position somehow.  But not the “right” way (i.e. reading Carrier), according to Coyne.

His dander up (as, it seems, it often is), Coyne then turns his scorn on the BBC:

What’s more galling is that the BBC is taking what “many scholars believe” as the gospel truth—pardon the pun—despite the fact that close scrutiny gives virtually no extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus.”

This is an even more strange set of claims.  All the rather brief BBC article does here is state a perfectly unremarkable fact: “many scholars agree that Jesus was a real man”.  And this is true.  If anything, it would be more accurate to note that “most scholars” agree this, not just “many”.  To be absolutely correct the phrase should be “virtually all scholars, apart from a tiny fringe of contrarians”, though the phrasing the Beeb uses is both generally factual and fairly neutral.  But like many zealots, Coyne sees opponents behind every bush and lurking in the most benign of sentences.

And like many Jesus Mythers, Coyne loads great weight on the amount of “extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus”, concluding that the fact that there is “virtually no” such evidence (because there is some) means he can’t have existed.  Actual historians, on the other hand, assess the weight of such evidence by looking at how much we would expect to have for a given figure and then assessing how much we have in the case in question against this.  When we compare the historical Jesus to analogous figures – other early first century Jewish prophets, preachers and Messianic claimants – we actually find we have slightly more extra-Biblical references to him than we have for others of his kind.  And the Biblical references to him that people like Coyne enthusiastically dismiss out of hand actually look far less like a mythic or celestial being being given a historical and human story and in fact show tell-tale signs of a human Jewish preacher being shoehorned, rather awkwardly, into the role of Messiah, with mixed results and success.

But all this butters no parsnips for the biologist Coyne – he has an emotionally-based, ideologically-driven fringe position and he is as sure of it as any fundamentalist.  Of course, exactly what the survey the BBC reports on tells us about belief in a historical Jesus is rather hard to tell.  The questions are simply not specific enough for us to guess what the respondents were thinking.  One asks respondents to Agree/Disagree/Don’t Know to the statement that:

“Jesus was a real person who actually lived”

Which seems straightforward at first, but which “Jesus”?  The figure in the gospels and the one at the centre of Christianity or a historical Jewish man on whom that figure was based?  Personally, I’d agree a historical Jesus “actually lived”, but I’d disagree that a Jesus who walked on water and rose from the dead did so.  So which Jesus was in the minds of the respondents? Who knows? The same goes for the next statement:

“Jesus is a mythical or fictional character”

I’d happily agree that the “Jesus Christ” of Christianity was, in several senses of the words, “mythical” or perhaps even “fictional”, but that doesn’t mean that a historical Yeshua bar Yosef doesn’t lie behind that character.  How much of this distinction were the respondents making, if any?  Again, who knows?  I suspect the results of the survey actually do reflect the way the Jesus Myth thesis is beginning to permeate popular culture, especially the high response to the “mythical or fictional character” question among younger respondents and atheist/agnostic respondents.  And this is due to exactly the New Atheist Bad History I’m highlighting in this blog and the strident historical illiteracy of Jesus Myth boosters like the biologist Jerry Coyne.

Larry Moran Asking the Wrong Questions and Not Understanding the Answers

Larry Moran is a biochemist.  Given that he is currently professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto, the author of many papers on biogenetics in esteemed journals like Gene and is the co-author of the text Principles of Biochemistry, it’s fairly clear that he is a very good biochemist.   What Larry Moran is definitely not, however, is a historian.

This last fact did not keep Moran from leaping to the defence of fellow non-historian Jerry Coyne when the latter’s odd post referred to above was briefly criticised by New Testament scholar (and someone who actually has historical training) James McGrath, who called Coyne a “denialist” – a term he later defined (quite reasonably) as someone “outside of the field who latch[es] on to a fringe view and use[s] it to dismiss an overwhelming consensus”.  Which fits Coyne and his Jesus Mythicism like a glove.

But Mythicists hate nothing more than being reminded that they are off on the semi-lunatic fringe and Moran decided he would use his training as a biochemist to sort all this silly historical nonsense out.

With scornful tones and Lewis Carroll quotes, he wades into the fray, smiting left and right.  He begins by quoting Coyne saying “I’m still convinced that the judgement of scholars that ‘Jesus was a real man’ comes not from evidence, but from their conviction that the Bible simply couldn’t be untruthful about that issue”, at which Moran bravely declares “There’s nothing particularly wrong with what Jerry says”.

Well, actually, there is.  We are talking about scholars in a field that revolves around questioning the veracity of pretty much every word, phrase and sentence in the Bible and who have been doing this in minute detail for about 200 years.  The idea that all of these scholars could simply have waved the idea that Jesus existed through and then gone on to question and analyse everything else is absurd to anyone who has any understanding of the field.  Like most complex academic fields, New Testament Studies has a history and early in it, the Jesus Myth idea had a brief vogue.  So undergraduates in the field study why early scholars in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries like de Volney, Dupuis and Bauer argued no historical Jesus existed and why the rest of field has since concluded that this is not a viable position.  So the biologist Coyne may be “convinced” that scholars in the relevant field simply haven’t considered this idea enough, but he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  

The biochemist Moran also defends the biologist Coyne on his claims that the general lack of  “extra-Biblical evidence” means the idea no historical Jesus existed at all is most likely, despite this being a denialist position:

“As far as I know the evidence that Jesus actually existed is not strong and, even more importantly, there’s no independent evidence that he rose from the dead or performed miracles.”

At least he had the sense to begin that sentence with “as far as I know”.  As noted above, the evidence that Jesus actually existed is equivalent to or slightly greater than that for analogous historical figures of the period and is the most parsimonious read of the data.  So it’s the one that scholars accept as most likely – which is how the field of history works.  But notice how Moran makes a little skip and a jump from one question (“Did a historical Jesus exist?”) to another (“Did this Jesus perform miracles and rise from the dead?”).  These are two separate questions, but one which denialists like Coyne and Moran muddle consistently and, sometimes, when convenient.  He then goes on:

“[McGrath] doesn’t present any evidence that Jesus existed and he certainly doesn’t present any evidence that Jesus did any of the things that are reported in the Bible.”

McGrath doesn’t actually need to present any evidence Jesus existed to note that Coyne is someone outside of the field who latch[es] on to a fringe view and use[s] it to dismiss an overwhelming consensus” – because that is just a fact.  Moran may agree with his fellow non-historian’s denialism, but denialism it remains.

Moran then quotes from an exchange he had with McGrath on Facebook, which he seems to think makes him look good.  It doesn’t.  He begins well by stating “I’m not familiar with this field”, but goes seriously downhill from there by immediately conflating the Jesus of history with the Jesus of faith and presuming that arguing for one is automatically arguing for the other:

“[W]hat is the best historical evidence of the existence of a man called “Jesus” who could perform miracles, rose from the dead, and was the son of god?”

McGrath tries to note his error by countering that evidence that Plato was not actually the son of Apollo does not mean Plato didn’t exist.  Similar examples from the ancient world could be multiplied to make the same point.  The evidence for the existence of the Divine Julius who was a son of Venus and who ascended into heaven after his death is poor in the extreme, but this does not mean the historical Julius Caesar didn’t exist.  Similarly, the evidence that the Divine Augustus was conceived when Apollo visited his mother Atia in the form of a snake is not good at all, but this does not mean the historical Emperor Augustus didn’t exist.  Likewise, it would be hard to argue that the Divine Vespasianus actually did miraculously heal the blind and lame in Egypt, but this does not mean the historical Emperor Vespasian didn’t exist.  Ancient people told miracle stories about both mythic figures and historical ones, so the existence of such stories about any figure tells us nothing much about the figure’s historicity.  So it is not just possible but entirely sensible to set aside the equivalent miraculous conception, healing and heavenly ascenion stories about Jesus when examining whether he existed.  And it is not sensible to point to those stories and conclude no historical Jesus existed at all.  That’s a classic non sequitur.

Thus McGrath tries valiantly to get the biochemist Moran to understand that miracles are so unlikely as historical events that they are put aside as most likely fantasy elements in any story, with historians concentrating on elements which are not automatically unlikely to determine their historicity.  As he puts it:

“But in general, historians do not bother doing that, because historical study deals in probabilities, and so historical study is not going to find an improbable event to be probable anyway, and so it makes more sense to bracket out such claims rather than to waste time investigating them merely to confirm their improbability.”

This is a perfectly sensible summary of how historians of the ancient world, who encounter miracle stories all the time, deal with them when trying to assess what is most likely to have happened in the past.  We can filter out Augustus’ miraculous conception without filtering out Augustus.  But Moran is having none of this.  In response he splutters:

“You’re actually serious, aren’t you? According to historians, what is the probability that Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo? Is it a low probability so historians bracket out the claim of a Wellington victory and don’t waste time investigating it?”

The stupidity of this is staggering.  What is the probability that Wellington won at Waterloo?  Extremely high, given that (i) battles are known phenomena that happen all the time, unlike miracles and (ii) the Battle of Waterloo and the War of the Seventh Coalition is rather well documented and multiply-attested, unlike any ancient miracle story about any figure, mythic or historical.  Not surprisingly, McGrath notes that Moran has not grasped his point at all.  Then Moran decides that the perfectly sensible point that McGrath is making is somehow just gobbledegook, states “I feel a little bit like how Alice might have felt when talking to Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass” (really?) and decides that quoting that sequence from Carroll is some kind of fine rhetorical flourish.  As a historian, Moran is a moron.

I’m sure Jerry Coyne is a fine biologist.  And I’m certain Larry Moran is an excellent biochemist.  But when they stray, staggering drunkenly, into the field of history they demonstrate that a combination of near total ignorance of both the field and the material along with a wall-eyed anti-religious bias makes for vast embarrassment to both.  Yet these seem to be the people from which many atheists are getting their grasp of history – from historically incompetent scientists championing denialist fringe theories.  

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the problem. 

(For those for whom the scholarly consensus on the historical Jesus genuinely needs explaining, I give a fairly detailed summary of its basis here, along with explanations as to why the fringe Mythicist alternative is not considered suitably likely).

22 thoughts on “Scientists and “Rationalists” Getting the Historical Jesus Completely Wrong

  1. My history prof, the well-known John Lukacs actually spent time discussing whether Wellington won the battle of Waterloo. Alternatives were that Blucher won the battle and that Napoleon lost the battle. (The latter is not quite the same sort of thing as Wellington winning.) He noted that different versions were taught in Anglophone, Francophone, and Germanophone schools.


  2. A cracking start to this blog. Some ideas for future posts:

    – What do you think of Carrier's Bayesian approach?
    – Why the "other gospels" aren't in the NT.
    – Consensus view on who wrote the gospels.
    – Parallel-ism/-omania


  3. He noted that different versions were taught in Anglophone, Francophone, and Germanophone schools.

    Really? I can understand the Germans teaching that Blucher won the battle, but do the French teach that Napoleon actually won?


  4. While I've got you, a quick question. You said in "Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth Theory, Again." over at Armarium Magnum that:
    "gLuke and gMatthew go to great lengths to tell stories which "explain" how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem despite being from Nazareth, since Micah 5:2 was taken to be a prophecy that the Messiah was to be from Bethlehem."

    Now, Luke – sure. Censuses and all that. But Matthew 1:24-2:2 says
    "When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."

    There's a story about Bethlehem and the Magi, but no attempt to explain how Jesus came to be born there. What am I missing?


  5. gMatt begins with Jesus' family living in Bethlehem (contradicting the gLuke narrative) and then uses the persecution of Herod to have them move to Egypt. Then they return from Egypt but since Herod's son is now ruling Judea, the story has them going to Galilee and settling in Nazareth. So just as the gLuke version "explains" how a guy from Nazareth could be born in Bethlehem, so does the gMatt story. But it does so by telling a tale that contradicts the gLuke version and also contains internal problems (eg another one of Herod's sons, Antipas, would have been ruling Galilee when they settled there, so why was that the preferable option?)


  6. "gMatt begins with Jesus' family living in Bethlehem". This isn't explicitly stated. I'm assuming its inferred from:
    – Bethlehem being the first place mentioned (Matt 2:1), and with no mention of the need to relocate to Bethlehem, this is presumably where they were living.
    – Nazareth is introduced only in 2:23 as their new home, not as where they were previously living, and not where the events of Matt 1 take place.

    Is that it?


  7. Is that it?

    Yes. It would be virtually impossible to read gMatt and not conclude that Bethlehem was their home town. The way Nazareth is introduced makes it clear that they had not been living there before. Fundamentalist apologetic attempts at reconciling the gMatt account with gLuke are ludicrous.


  8. Tim,

    I am very grateful that you opened this blog. I have become quite a fan of your writings even though I respectfully disagree with some points you make here and there. I plan to read this blog regularly as it's such a fresh antidote to the usual and highly irritating mythicist bullshit that I encounter on the Internet, particularly Facebook. I wanted to ask you something about the topic of Matthew and Luke covering the birth narratives of Jesus.

    I agree that Matthew and Luke give contradictory stories: Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth, they go to Bethlehem, Jesus is born, and after fulfilling the requirements of the law, they return to their home in Nazareth. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem, Jesus is born there, the holy family flees to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath, and after leaving Egypt, they settle in Nazareth for the first time.

    However, I believe it was at your other blog that you noted at least a ten year discrepancy between Matthew and Luke. Matthew says that it was after Herod died that his son took over. Herod died in 4 B.C.E if I recall correctly and our best source is Josephus.

    According to Luke, there was a census in during the governorship of Quirinius but this happened after Herod died and his son was replaced, IIRC. Some Christian apologists, attempting to harmonize the two, will argue that Quirinius was governor twice. Is there any evidence of the ten year discrepancy, particularly showing that Quirinius was governor just once? I'd love to study any works on the topic, be it essays or books. The only essay that I know of that argues this is one written by our beloved mythicist Richard Carrier and I don't want to have to quote a kook like him or reference him if I ever write anything on the topic myself and I don't want to have to refer anyone else to Carrier's work if I want an expert argument on the subject.


  9. Tim,

    Just one more question for now. Some conservative Christian apologists will attempt to reconcile Matthew and Luke's stories. They might argue that Joseph and Mary never lived in Bethlehem but only visited it or that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth but moved to Egypt and then moved back to Nazareth. There is one scenario, in particular, that I wanted to get your take on. It goes something like this:

    Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem were Jesus was born. They fulfilled the requirements of the law and then returned to their hometown of Nazareth. After a short period of time, they moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem and that's where the part of the wise men/Magi comes in. They visit the family, give the boy Jesus gifts, and then return. Then Joseph takes Mary and the small boy Jesus and head for Egypt, and then move back to Nazareth. So the harmonization is that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were in Bethlehem twice: first for the birth of Jesus and, second, for the wise men.

    I find this scenario very far-fetched. Why would the holy family move to Bethlehem just so that the wise men/Magi could visit them when divine providence could've arranged for them to visit the family in Nazareth without having to trouble Herod at all, thereby completely avoiding the whole slaughter of the innocents as well as the need for an emergency migration to Egypt? I also find it ridiculous that, if the family moved back to Nazareth, they would then start visiting Jerusalem annually for the Passover given that Jerusalem would be the lion's den. What better incentive would there be for the family to avoid Jerusalem given that Herod's son would be waiting for them?

    Do you detect any flaws or anything implausible with this "two-Bethlehem" scenario that I might be missing?


  10. "Is there any evidence of the ten year discrepancy, particularly showing that Quirinius was governor just once?"

    There is zero evidence of him being governor twice and the stuff fundamentalist apologists claim is evidence of it simply isn't. One piece talks about someone holding a governership twice, with no mention of Quirinius and the other piece mentions Quirinius holding another officer in a completely different province, far from Judea. There are also claims that he may have held a subordinate role under another, earlier governor, which is ruled out by the fact that Senatorial ranked patricians simply didn't do this. And the whole idea of any Roman administering a tax census in the territory of a client king is nonsense anyway. That defeated the purpose of having a client king to do that kind of thing for you. So however you cut it, the attempt at levering Quirnius back into an earlier census before the death of Herod fails.

    You don't need to cite Carrier on this point, as it's pretty much accepted by all but the most conservative of scholars. Raymond E. Brown, who was not exactly some wildly radical scholar, discusses and dismisses these attempts at reconciling the gMatt and gLuke stories in his The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (1977, 1998)

    "Do you detect any flaws or anything implausible with this "two-Bethlehem" scenario that I might be missing? "

    The way gMatt introduces Nazareth in Matt 2:23 makes it pretty clear they are going there for the first time. If they were returning home when they went there, it would be very strange for the gMatt writer to need to "explain" them settling there – the reason would be obvious. So this whole contrived scenario is nonsense.

    And if you don't mind, I think that's about enough questions on this topic, since it's not really related to the topic of my post above.


  11. Thanks for putting so much effort into this subject, Tim. I'm an atheist and have run across the Jesus Myth before, but was never motivated enough to look into it. This blog and the link to your primary Jesus Myth article were both very interesting and enlightening. I very much look forward to your next article, whatever it may be.


  12. "gMatt begins with Jesus' family living in Bethlehem (contradicting the gLuke narrative) and then uses the persecution of Herod to have them move to Egypt. Then they return from Egypt but since Herod's son is now ruling Judea, the story has them going to Galilee and settling in Nazareth. So just as the gLuke version "explains" how a guy from Nazareth could be born in Bethlehem, so does the gMatt story. But it does so by telling a tale that contradicts the gLuke version and also contains internal problems (eg another one of Herod's sons, Antipas, would have been ruling Galilee when they settled there, so why was that the preferable option?)"

    Does any of this indicate historical authenticity?


  13. "What Jerry Coyne is definitely not, however, is a historian.

    But this last fact has not kept Coyne from opining long, loud and often on his Why Evolution is True blog on matters historical,"

    And, of course, Tim O'Neill, not being an historian, would never opine "long, loud and often" on matters historical.


  14. The problem doesn't lie in his opining, as he (and I) are free to opine on whatever we like. The problem lies in his uninformed and biased opinions that he opines. Thus the second half of the sentence that you chose to chop off:

    " … usually indulging in some ripe New Atheist Bad History in the process."

    And unlike Coyne, I have training in history and have studied the relevant periods for several decades. And, unlike Coyne, I'm equipped to assess which scholarship is worth noting and which is ideologically-driven contrarianism.


  15. "Does any of this indicate historical authenticity?"

    No, quite the opposite. This is why it's widely accepted that these are theological stories and not historical reporting. Your point would be … ?


  16. It be a bit old now, but I couldn't hold a chuckle.
    No, the French teach that Napoleon _lost_, vaguely implying that which one of the who knows how many enemies had ganged upon him did lead the fight wasn't as important as the fact that he was himself very ill (and that some of his generals simply didn't follow his orders – a real-life case of Screwed By The AI?)
    Which may be based on a supposed quote from Wellington himself, along the lines of "it is not me who won but Napoleon who lost" – though while I heard it several times, I can't find any source, which makes me think it is an apocryphal one, or from someone else.

    Also, from an agnostic (and, alas, former antitheist): thank you for making the world a better place!


  17. One of the biggest sources for the popularity of Jesus Mythicism among these ignorant "new atheists" is the various speeches and books of the late journalist Christopher Hitchens.

    Hitchens applied a journalist's outlook to the historicity of Jesus. Of course investigative Journalism relies upon credible current evidence. Hitchens had no remote clue about proper historical analysis.

    But these "new atheists" became very fond of him, his articulation, his quick wit ad the fact that he published his atheism book about the same time as Dawkins published his and thus got lot of attention. So fond that he was even named as one of their "4 horsemen".
    And with that status: A good many new atheists buy everything they ever hear or see him ever saying (they haven't seen him promote invading Iraq in 2003) without the slightest question.


  18. "One of the biggest sources for the popularity of Jesus Mythicism among these ignorant "new atheists" is the various speeches and books of the late journalist Christopher Hitchens.

    It is? Are you sure about that? I've read God is Not Great twice and noted many places where Hitchens bungles and distorts history, but didn't notice him peddling Mythicism at all. He certainly says that Christians make an error in "assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record" (p. 132 of the 2008 Allen and Unwin edition), but he is talking about them being able to be taken at face value or even as a rough approximation of history. Many scholars would agree with this, at least to some extent. But he then goes on to present "the best argument I know for the highly questionable existence of Jesus" (p. 135) by noting that the contradictory and ahistorical efforts of the writers of gMatt and gLuke to "explain" how a man from Nazareth came to "really" be born at Bethlehem indicates that there was an historical man from Nazareth in the first place and that his origin in the wrong place posed a problem for the later gospel writers. You can hear Hitchens making the same point in detail here at about the 3.00 minute mark.



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