Monday, April 30, 2012

Richard Dawkins versus Rowan Williams

In this video, Richard Dawkins debates religion and human nature with Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury), on 23 February 2012 in Oxford. An interesting debate.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tacitus on Pilate as Procurator of Judaea

There is a debate in the blogosphere recently between Richard Carrier and Bart D. Ehrman, over Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012).

For the debate, see these posts:
(1) Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic,” Richard Carrier Blogs, April 19, 2012.

(2) Bart D. Ehrman, “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier,” Bart’s Blog, 25 April, 2012.
Most of the debate, however, seems petty and pedantic to me.

Take one aspect of the debate: the use of the term procurator applied to Pontius Pilate by Tacitus at Annales 15.44 (if we assume the passage is not an interpolation by a very clever Christian or pagan scribe*):
auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat

“the originator of this name [sc. of the Christians] Christus had been afflicted with [sc. capital] punishment by the procurator Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius” (Annales 15.44).
Here both Carrier and Ehrman make sensible remarks, but the fundamental point is that there is no necessary reason why Tacitus is relying on anything other than what Christians in his own day were saying about Jesus: that is to say, there is no necessary reason why this passage is independent pagan testimony to an historical Jesus of Nazareth.

In terms of official titulature, Tacitus’s error is straightforward: when Tacitus was writing in the early 2nd century AD the equestrian governors usually carried the official title procurator. Before Claudius, equestrian governors were generally officially called prefects (or praefectus in Latin). But under Claudius terminology shifted (see Garnsey and Saller 1987: 23; Jones 1960: 124). B. Levick describes this:
“The second change concerns the titulature of equestrian governors. Equites [viz. equestrian Romans below the rank of senators] sent to govern small provinces or districts such as Judaea or Raetia had been styled by the military title of Prefect. Prefects vanished from all provinces except Egypt, where the title was buttressed by law, and ‘praesidial’ procurators ... replaced them.” (Levick 2001: 48).
In informal terms, however, prefects could still be called procurators as private financial agents of the emperor: for we have a letter of Claudius written in 41 AD to Vitrasius Pollio the Prefect of Egypt (no doubt his official title) where Claudius clearly calls him a “procurator” (Levick 2001: 48).

Tacitus’s use of “procurator” at Annales 15.44 is either (1) just an anachronism (and why would Tacitus have bothered to use obsolete terminology from over 70 years before his own time anyway?) or (2) perhaps even conscious use of the contemporary term, so that his readers would not be confused by the obsolete term “prefect.”


* Book 15 of the Annales of Tacitus is preserved in a mid-11th century manuscript called the “Second Medicean” (or M2 for short) copied at Monte Cassino, which was brought to Florence after 1360 (Mellor 1993: 138). Some scholars have argued that Leidensis BPL 16B (the Leyden Manuscript of Tacitus) is a manuscript with readings derived from a tradition independent of M2 (on this, see Martin 1964), but this idea appears to have won little support today (Martin 1981: 266, n. 15).

The passage on the Christians and Pilate is already in M2, and it seems unlikely that the passage is an interpolation. The interpolation must have been done before c. 1150. Why would a Christian write such negative and insulting things about his own religion? (Tacitus is highly derogatory in his comments on the Christians).

If one really wants to argue in favour of interpolation, perhaps there are three possibilities:
(1) An ancient pagan or non-Christian medieval scribe interpolated this passage. Its negative bias reflects the scribe’s hostility to Christianity.

(2) A very clever medieval Christian scribe copied Tacitus’s style and had the wit to write a negative interpolation about the Christians, to make it believable.

(3) I suppose it is also possible that humanist Renaissance scholars altered the text of M2, but that seems impossible to me, for surely the current manuscript M2 would show clear signs of such a major change. Some evidence adduced here about the possible change of “Chrestianos” to “Christianos” by the original M2 scribe or a later author of marginal glosses does not support some major interpolation at all, for the whole passage on the Christians and the fire is clearly already in M2, as well as the sentence beginning auctor nominis eius Christus ... . In any case, the presence of “Chrestianos” in the original work of Tacitus means only that this was how the ordinary people referred to the Christians, an inaccurate spelling or pronunciation, which Tacitus corrects by his curious phrase auctor nominis eius Christus (Voorst 2000: 43-44).
All in all, however, I do not think these hypotheses are credible. Probably Tacitus did write the passage.


Ehrman, Bart D. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, HarperOne.

Garnsey, Peter and R. Saller. 1987. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Jones, A. H. M. 1960. Studies in Roman Government and Law, Blackwell, Oxford.

Levick, Barbara. 2001. Claudius, Routledge, London.

Martin, R. H. 1964. “The Leyden Manuscript of Tacitus,” The Classical Quarterly n.s. 14.1: 109-119.

Martin, R. H. 1981. Tacitus, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Mellor, Ronald. 1993. Tacitus, Routledge, New York and London.

Voorst, Robert E. van. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why Jesus Mythicism is Unconvincing

One of the most radical forms of the theory of Jesus Mythicism (or Christ myth theory) holds that there never was an historical person called Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus, son of Joseph.

I am not referring here to some forms of Jesus Mythicism, like that of G. A. Wells in the The Jesus Legend (Chicago and La Salle, Ill., 1996), in which it is held that legends grew up around an historical figure called Jesus. Rather, I refer to those who argue that an historical Jesus was an invention of early Christianity. As an atheist, I can readily agree that the Jesus of the Gospels is a fiction and legend, that miracles never happen, and that Christianity is false.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the evidence for an historical Jesus is a convincing hypothesis.

According to Richard Carrier (one such mythicist), the respectable or “good” mythicists are himself, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, Thomas Thompson, and possibly Frank Zindler. The inclusion of G. A. Wells in this list seems strange to me, because in Wells (1996) it is quite clear that the author accepts some kind of historical Jesus. Wells himself states:
“I have never – in spite of what some of my critics have alleged – subscribed to such a view [sc. viz., that of Earl Doherty]: for Paul does, after all, call Jesus a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the (Jewish) law (Gal. 4:4), who lived as a servant to the circumcision (Rom. 15:8) and was crucified on a tree (Gal. 3:13) and buried (I Cor. 15:4).”
G. A. Wells, “Earliest Christianity,” 1999.
I will focus on the thesis of Earl Doherty, whose name comes up frequently in internet discussions of Jesus Mythicism. Doherty has written two books and has a website defending his theory, as follows:
Doherty, E. 2009. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

Doherty, E. 2005 (1999). The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty
First, I accept that Doherty’s work is important and has something to contribute. I have read Doherty’s first book The Jesus Puzzle, and will present a critique of his basic theory below. There are some points where it is possible to agree with him: for example, Doherty (1999: 45) argues that Paul invented the Eucharist through what he thought was a personal vision from the risen Jesus. That, I think, is a persuasive hypothesis. Paul had some dream, delusion, or hallucination in which he saw what he describes in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, perhaps even being unconsciously influenced by contemporary Mystery religions rites (this is also, more or less, the thesis of Maccoby 1991).

But overall I do not find Doherty’s thesis convincing.

Doherty argues from the evidence of the letters of Paul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul) that the Jesus whom Paul believed in was a completely imaginary, mythical figure: a heavenly being who was incarnated in the flesh and underwent a sacrificial death in the lower spheres of heaven (what was called the second heaven in Jewish cosmology) at the hands of evil spirits and demons. He was then resurrected by God to the highest heaven and made known to humanity through visions and revelations, particularly by Paul. Doherty thinks diaspora Jewish-Hellenistic religious syncretism and Middle Platonism influenced this emerging religion.

The points to be made against this thesis are as follows:
(1) Evidence of other Christians with different conceptions of Jesus.

In Paul’s own writings we have references to Christians at Corinth who preached a Jesus different from his own and another gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4). These were Jewish Christian preachers with the authority of those Paul elsewhere calls the “pillars” in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:16–21; 2:1–10), as Michael Goulder (2001) argues. The pillars in Jerusalem were apostles before Paul (Gal. 1:16–21), yet it is very clear that they did not accept his gospel of justification by faith or the view that Jesus’s crucifixion had abolished the Torah (the Mosaic Law). Paul tells us explicitly that he felt he needed to lay out his gospel before them (Gal. 2:1–10), and we can conclude by deduction that his gospel (or at least an important part of it) was new to them. If Acts has any historical value (and here I think it does), Jerusalem Christianity attracted many Jews zealous for the law (Acts 21:20–21), and some Jewish Christians thought Gentile converts needed to be converted to Judaism to be proper Christians (Acts 15:1).

Did these Jerusalem Christians really believe like Paul in a purely heavenly Christ crucified in the lower heavens and not even an earthly figure? Jerusalem is most decidedly not the natural home of Doherty’s Hellenised Jewish sect influenced by Middle Platonism. And 2 Corinthians 11:4 already demonstrates they had a different Christology and gospel. If they did not share Paul’s gospel of justification by faith, what was the point of Christ’s crucifixion in the heavenly realms in their version of Christianity? I doubt that a Hellenised Jewish sect derived partly from Middle Platonism would have been based in Jerusalem and attracted Pharisees and those zealous for the law: rather, the Jerusalem movement most probably had arisen from the ministry of some human figure, the recently executed Jesus.

(2) How did a heavenly Jesus acquire this title of Christos?

The explanation of how Jesus acquired the title Christ (or in Greek Christos), which means “anointed one” or “Messiah,” is straightforward on the conventional view: the human Jesus either claimed it or, more likely, his followers came to believe he was Messiah after his death (as argued by William Wrede in the Messianic Secret), possibly even partly as a consequence of the charge that was made against him by the Romans, that he was a pretender to the throne of Judaea.

Romans 9:31–33 speaks of Jesus’s crucifixion as a stumbling stone to the unbelieving Jewish people, and Paul says God placed it in Zion (Jerusalem), which locates that event in Jerusalem, not in a heavenly realm (see the extended discussion here of this passage, amongst others, which is a critique of Earl Doherty by Bernard D. Muller).

How exactly did a heavenly Jesus become the Christ (the Messiah)? And why was a heavenly Christ in the lower heavens crucified as opposed to some other method of killing? Crucifixion was very much an earthly method of execution associated with the Romans in Paul’s time (on crucifixion in the ancient world, see Hengel 1977).

(3) James is attested as brother of Jesus in other sources apart from Gal. 1:18–19

In Galatians, Paul refers to his meeting with James, the brother of the Lord:
Ἔπειτα μετὰ τρία ἔτη ἀνῆλθον εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἱστορῆσαι Κηφᾶν, καὶ ἐπέμεινα πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡμέρας δεκαπέντε• ἕτερον δὲ τῶν ἀποστόλων οὐκ εἶδον, εἰ μὴ Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου.

“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days; but I saw none of the other apostles, except James the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:18–19).
Now Paul’s writings are not found in a vacuum: they are part of a vast Christian corpus of writing from the first century AD onwards.

We have other sources that name James as the brother of Jesus, and here is a sample:
(1) Gospel of the Hebrews
This Greek work from the first half of the second century AD names James as Jesus’s brother, as quoted by Jerome (De Viris Illustribus 2), in a story where Jesus’s first resurrection appearance is to his brother.

(2) Second Apocalypse of James 50.13.
This Gnostic text written in the 2nd century AD contains Jewish Christian influences and parts of it probably rely on earlier sources.

(3) Clementine Homilies 11.35 (see 4.35).
Doherty suggests that in Gal. 1:18–19 it “may well have been this phrase [sc. James the brother of the Lord] which led later Christians to make James the just … a sibling of Jesus himself” (Doherty 1999: 57).

Yet it is unlikely that the Pseudo-Clementine literature has derived the notion of James as the brother of the Lord from Paul’s writing: the Pseudo-Clementine literature is hostile to Paul and reflects Jewish Christian rejection of Paul as an apostate.

(4) The imminent apocalypticism of Paul

For Doherty the actual death and resurrection of Christ occurred in a timeless heavenly realm:
“in some unspecified time and place, Paul’s Christ had performed a redemptive act.” (Doherty 1999: 95).

“Here [sc. in the realm of the demon spirits] Christ could assume counterpart characteristics of the visible world, undergo suffering and death at the hands of the spirits as a blood sacrifice, and be raised by God back to the highest heaven. Even if it was all a part of God’s ‘mystery,’ something that had taken place in God’s eternal time, hidden for long generations and knowable to men like Paul only through divine revelation in scripture.” (Doherty 1999: 103).
But Paul’s writing shows an imminent apocalypticism—a conviction that the eschaton (end of the world) is near—and the fact that Paul thinks that it was the resurrection of Jesus as the first fruits of those who had died (1 Corinthians 15:20) that initiated the last days of the world would suggest that he did think that the death and resurrection of Christ was a recent event. The mythical death of Jesus in a timeless heavenly world does not seem to be consistent with his expectation of an impending parousia, and the idea that the eschatological times had been begun by a recent event: the first resurrection of a person from the dead throughout history.

(5) 1 Corinthians 2:8: Jesus killed by “rulers of this age”

In 1 Corinthians 2:8, we have this statement:
ἀλλὰ λαλοῦμεν θεοῦ σοφίαν ἐν μυστηρίῳ, τὴν ἀποκεκρυμμένην, ἣν προώρισεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸ τῶν αἰώνων εἰς δόξαν ἡμῶν• ἣν οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου ἔγνωκεν, εἰ γὰρ ἔγνωσαν, οὐκ ἂν τὸν κύριον τῆς δόξης ἐσταύρωσαν.

“But we proclaim wisdom from god in the form of a mystery, one having been hidden, which God decreed before the ages, for our glory; and which not one of the rulers of this age has known: for if they knew, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2.6–8).
Doherty argues that the “rulers of this age” that Paul refers to here are actually evil spirits and demons who rule the lower heavens: they are the ones that crucified Jesus, not any human rulers. Doherty can of course cite a number of New Testament scholars who agree with him on this point (cf. Carr 1976–1977).

But in Romans 13:3 Paul used the word “rulers” (archontes in the Greek) in a clear way to refer to human civil authorities and governments. Some interpreters think the context of the passage requires human rulers, and immediately afterwards at 1 Cor. 2:9 Paul speaks of human hearts not understanding God’s plans for those who love him.

Even if Paul envisages evil spirits and demons here, the trouble is that there is no reason why the expression cannot have a double meaning: the Roman political authorities and the evil spirits and demons who rule the lower heavens killed Jesus, the former as the instrument of the latter. G. A. Wells, who regards this as Doherty’s strongest point, nevertheless is not convinced and also takes the view that both human authorities and the evil spirits are meant here. (I will not discuss 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16, where it is asserted that the Jewish authorities were involved in Jesus’s death, because many scholars think this is an interpolation.)

(6) A crucial passage is Philippians 2.6–8:
… Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος• καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.

“…. Christ Jesus
who, being in the form of God did not deem it a prize to be equal with God,
but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave
born* in the form of men,
and having appeared (or having been found) in shape as a man
he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death
and death on a cross.” (Phil 2.6–8).

* The participle γενόμενος is also used by Paul in Gal. 4:4 in the sense of “born.”
Paul says that Christ took the form of men and came in the shape of a man.

The Mythicists like Doherty might reply that his happened in the second heaven where Jesus was killed by evil spirits. But Paul also says that Jesus was a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the Mosaic law (Gal. 4:4), and that he became a servant to the Jewish people (Rom. 15:8). He was crucified on a tree (Gal. 3:13) and buried (1 Cor. 15:4).

Paul’s soteriology clearly requires that Jesus was incarnated in the flesh like a human being. Taken together, all these ideas in Paul’s writings with points (1) to (5) above suggest to me that Paul does indeed think that Jesus had been an individual on earth.
All in all, there is convincing evidence that even Paul believed in an historical Jesus.

In particular, the existence of a brother of Jesus known to Paul is solid evidence for the existence of a recently deceased founder of Christianity.

But obviously there is no denying that in Paul’s writings there is virtually no interest in the historical Jesus. But this is because, for Paul, the resurrected Jesus is far more important than whatever Jesus did during his life on earth, and indeed Paul’s heavenly Jesus has already become a mythologised figure.


The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty

Earl Doherty, “A Comment on Richard Carrier’s Review of The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ?,” The Jesus Puzzle.

Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity,” The Secular Web, 2002.

Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic,” Richard Carrier Blogs, April 19, 2012.

Bart D. Ehrman, “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier,” Bart’s Blog, 25 April, 2012.


Carr, W. 1976–1977. “The Rulers of This Age—I Corinthians II. 6–8,” New Testament Studies 23: 20–35.

Carr, W. 1981. Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase hai archai kai hai exousiai, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Doherty, E. 2005 (1999). The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

Doherty, E. 2009. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus, Age of Reason Publications, Ottawa, ON.

Goulder, M. D. 2001. Paul and the Competing Mission in Corinth, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass.

Hengel, Martin. 1977. Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

Maccoby, H., 1991. “Paul and the Eucharist,” New Testament Studies 37: 247–269.

Wells, G. A. 1996. The Jesus Legend, Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Ill.

Wrede, William. 1971. The Messianic Secret (trans. J. C. G. Greig), Attic Press, Greenwood, S.C.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Opening Post

This is my second blog. The first is Social Democracy for the 21st Century, an economics blog from the Post Keynesian perspective.

But often there are things I like to blog about that are unrelated to economics: hence this blog.

I’ve chosen a quotation from Cicero as the title: “to live is to think” (vivere est cogitare, in Latin). This occurs in one of Cicero’s philosophical works:
loquor enim de docto homine et erudito, cui vivere est cogitare.

“for I speak of a man of learning and erudition, for whom to live is to think.”
(Tusculan Disputations, 5.111).
This, I think, is a nice sentiment for blogging.