Archive for the ‘Historical Christianity’ Category

The Historical Jesus: Recommended Reading

February 19, 2015 Leave a comment


With the rise of interest in studies of the historical Jesus and the increasing presence of mythicism on the internet, Bible believers are advised to be well informed on the subject of Jesus historicity. This article provides a balanced reading list of resources presenting the evidence for Jesus’ historicity and the authenticity of the Jesus tradition, and addressing mythicist claims.

Works by Christians

This is a select list of recommended works on the historical Jesus by Christian scholars. There are too many to describe in detail, but it is worth noting the authors who are considered most useful and authoritative in the field; Craig Blomberg, William Lane Craig, James Dunn, Craig Evans, Gary Habermas, Craig Keener, John Meier, Stanley Porter, and Robert Van Voorst.

  1. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997).
  2. Darrell L Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leicester, England: Baker Academic ; Apollos, 2002).
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002).
  4. Ronald K. Craig, William Lane; Lüdemann, Gerd; Copan, Paul; Tacelli, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate between William Lane Craig & Gerd Lüdemann (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
  5. Tom Evans, Craig A. Wright, Jesus, the Final Days (ed. Troy A. Miller; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008).
  6. Bruce David Chilton and Craig A. Evans, Authenticating the Words of Jesus (Brill, 1999).
  7. Michael R. Cosby, Portraits of Jesus: An Inductive Approach to the Gospels (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999).
  8. Pieter F. Craffert, The Life of a Galilean Shaman: Jesus of Nazareth in Anthropological-Historical Perspective (vol. 3; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008).
  9. Markus Cromhout, Jesus and Identity: Reconstructing Judean Ethnicity in Q (vol. 2; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007).
  10. Donald L. Denton, Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies: An Examination of the Work of John Dominic Crossan and Ben F. Meyer (vol. 262; London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004).
  11. John P. Dickson, The Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know about Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).
  12. James D. G Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003).
  13. James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight, The Historical Jesus in Recent Research (Eisenbrauns, 2005).
  14. James D. G. Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).
  15. Craig A Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” in Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (ed. Bruce David Chilton and Craig Alan Evans; Brill, 1998), 443–78.
  16. David Flusser and R. Steven Notley, Jesus (The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2001).
  17. Joel B. Green and Max Turner, Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus And New Testament Christology (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994).
  18. I. Howard Green, Joel B.; McKnight, Scot; Marshall, ed., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
  19. Leonard J Greenspoon, M. Dennis Hamm, and Bryan F LeBeau, The Historical Jesus Through Catholic and Jewish Eyes (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000).
  20. Brian Han Gregg, The Historical Jesus and the Final Judgment Sayings in Q (Mohr Siebeck, 2006).
  21. Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996).
  22. Tom Holmén and Stanley E Porter, Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011).
  23. Leander E Keck, Who Is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).
  24. Craig S Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009).
  25. John S. Kloppenborg and John W. Marshall, Apocalypticism, Anti-Semitism and the Historical Jesus: Subtexts in Criticism (vol. 275; Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series; T&T Clark International, 2005).
  26. Leif E. Kloppenborg, John S.;Vaage, ed., Early Christianity, Q and Jesus (vol. 55; Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1992).
  27. J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006).
  28. Clive Marsh and Steve Moyise, Jesus and the Gospels: 2nd Edition (Continuum, 2006). Criteria of authenticity.
  29. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1991-2009). Published in four volumes, criteria of historicity and authenticity.
  30. Stanley E. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004).
  31. Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
  32. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (trans. W. Montgomery; 2d ed.; London: Adam and Charles Black, 1911).
  33. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).
  34. Robert E Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2000).
  35. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (2nd ed.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
  36. Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
  37. Thomas R Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2007).

Works by non-Christians

These works are useful because they provide non-Christian scholarly perspectives of the historical Jesus, and cannot be dismissed by non-Christians as biased in favour of Christian beliefs. Naturally these works give no credence to the gospels’ accounts of supernatural events such as Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection, and their assessments of how Jesus was viewed by his disciples does not always agree with our own. Nevertheless, they are important witnesses to the extent to which Jesus’ historicity is well established within mainstream secular scholarship, proving it is not merely a fringe view confined to Christians

Bart D Ehrman, Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Assesses the New Testament evidence for the life and work of Jesus, applying criteria of authenticity. This book is useful for learning how the criteria of authenticity are applied, and for understanding the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.

Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperCollins, 2012). Describes the historical evidence confirming the existence of Jesus, and addresses a range of mythicist arguments and books, from the scholarly to the populist. This book is useful for learning how the criteria of historicity are applied, understanding the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, and understanding and answering standard mythicist arguments.

Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (Harper Collins, 2014). Explains the process by which Jesus became known as God. Whilst agreeing with the scholarly consensus that Jesus did not consider himself divine or teach his followers that he was divine, Ehrman believes that at least some of the early first century Christians (including those who contributed to the New Testament), were already starting to see Jesus as a divine being in some way. This book is useful for learning how later Christians developed the doctrine of the Trinity, and provides excellent evidence that neither Jesus nor his disciples considered him to be divine.

Michael Grant, Jesus. (New York NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977). Very useful as an account of Jesus by a secular professional historian, and still considered a standard work in the field.

Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth an Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching (London; New York: T & T Clark, 2010). Focuses on the language of the gospels to reconstruct the historical Jesus in the context of 1st century Judaism, with a particular emphasis on identifying authentic Aramaic sayings of Jesus behind the Greek text of the gospels. On the basis of this approach, Casey dates Mark’s gospel extremely early (c. 40 CE), earlier than the earliest of Paul’s letters (1 Thessalonians, c. 51 CE). Casey’s Aramaic reconstructions have been recognized as shedding important light on the historical Jesus, even though they have not all been accepted. His very early date for Mark has not been widely accepted, but is considered possible by mainstream scholarship.

Maurice Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2014). Casey’s last work on the historical Jesus (Casey died in May 2014), addressing specifically the typical mythicist arguments. A strongly worded book, Casey identifies numerous weaknesses in the mythicst case, which he characterizes as a fringe view held almost exclusively by non-scholars, or by a very small number of scholars without directly relevant professional qualifications. This work is useful as a resource for a scholarly consideration of recent mythicist arguments typically found online rather than in print publications.

James G. Crossley, Reading the New Testament: Contemporary Approaches (Routledge, 2010). A valuable work explaining how standard professional historical methodology is applied to New Testament research and the subject of the historical Jesus. Crossley describes the various forms of historical analysis applied to the gospels, and explains in detail the criteria of authenticity used in the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Crossley dates Mark’s gospel to around 35 CE, even earlier than the date proposed by Casey, but although his case for this date has not been accepted, it is still taken seriously by mainstream scholarship and is considered within the bounds of possibility.

R. Joseph Hoffmann, Jesus Outside the Gospels (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984). Hoffman’s early work on the historical Jesus concluded that very little could be verified about his life, and cast doubt on the authenticity and accuracy of the gospel records. Nevertheless, he concluded in favour of the historicity of Jesus. This book is mainly useful as a contrast to his late work, demonstrating how his views shifted over time.

R. Joseph Hoffmann, Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2010). Edited by Hoffman (who wrote most of the chapters), this book contains essays from atheist members of The Jesus Project, a secular investigation of the historical Jesus which started in 2008 and was terminated in 2009 (despite having been planned to run for five years). The book received mixed reviews from atheists, and even from members of The Jesus Project itself. It is useful as an introduction to typical arguments made against the historicity of Jesus by writers such as Robert Price, Richard Carrier, Frank Zindler, and Robert Eisenman.


Did Jesus exist?

In recent years the historical existence of Jesus has been disputed by atheists and extreme skeptics. Such challenges have typically originated online, consisting of non-professional commentary from individuals with no relevant qualifications (with only very rare exceptions). The overwhelming scholarly consensus of professional historians considers the historical existence of Jesus to be conclusively established. This article surveys the historical sources typically cited as evidence for the existence of Jesus.

Historical evidence

There are no contemporary records of Jesus’ life; that is, none written during the time that he was alive. Even the gospels were written long after his death. The apostle Paul is in fact the earliest witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The following are sources outside the New Testament, commonly cited as witnesses for the historicity of Jesus. They are not all of equal value, and some of them do not contribute very useful historical data.

  1. Thallos (Greek historian), c. 55 CE.[1]

The Christian historian Georgius Syncellus quotes a passage from 3rd century Christian historian Julius Africanus, who in turn quotes Thallos  referring to an eclipse.[2] Although Thallos treats the eclipse as a natural event, Africanus argues he is wrong, and that this was an act of God which took place at the crucifixion of Jesus.[3] The uncertainty of who Thallos was, what he wrote, and the lack of a direct reference to Jesus, means this source does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.[4]

  1. Josephus (Jewish historian), c. 90s CE.

Josephus is considered the most important historical witness to the life of Jesus outside the New Testament, not only because he is the earliest but also because his work ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ (written during the 90s), contains two references to Jesus. The first reference is lengthy, and much of it looks like it was written by a Christian rather than a Jewish historian such as Josephus; see the words marked here in bold.

‘Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; (64) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross,b those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day,c as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.’[5]

It is certain that this reference contains a lot of material which is obviously not authentic, having been added by later Christians scribes when copying Josephus’ work.[6] [7] [8] Nevertheless the overwhelming majority of scholars believe that once these Christian additions are removed, there is still a genuine historical reference to Jesus in the text, which was written by Josephus. Here is an example of what the original text is typically understood to have looked like.

‘At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.’[9]

Very importantly, a 10th century Christian manuscript written in Arabic quotes this section of Josephus in a way which shows the writer (Agapius of Mabbug), had access to a text which did not suffer from the Christian additions of the oldest available Greek text.

‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.’[10]

This text was only published academically in 1971, [11] long after scholars had suggested a neutral ‘reconstructed’ version of the quotation from Josephus, with the most obvious Christian additions removed. The fact that this Arabic text is very similar to the reconstructed text, and is independent of the corrupted Greek version, strengthens the considerably the case that Josephus contains an authentic reference to the life and death of Jesus. This is acknowledged by the overwhelming majority of current scholars.[12] [13] [14]

The second reference to Jesus in Josephus contains a reference to James, called by Josephus ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James’.[15] This reference has been far less disputed, since the mention of Jesus is incidental and since he is referred to as Jesus ‘who was called Christ’, indicating that the writer himself did not believe Jesus was the Christ.[16] [17]

  1. Pliny the Younger (Roman senator), c. 111-113 CE.

While he was the governor of Pontus-Bythinia from c. 111-113 CE, Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians.[18] However, Pliny’s letters tell us only about the beliefs and practices of the Christians in his day; he does not refer to Jesus specifically, and does not provide any independent information on Jesus as a historical figure.[19] Like Thallos, Pliny does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.[20]

  1. Tacitus (Roman historian), c. 116 CE.

In his historical work ‘Annals’ (written around 116 CE), Tacitus refers explicitly to Jesus as the founder of Christianity, and his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate.[21]  Arguments that this passage was not written by Tacitus, and was inserted by later Christians, have failed to convince mainstream scholarship.[22] This remains one of the earliest historical references to Jesus, and to his crucifixion under Pilate.

  1. Suetonius (Roman historian), c. 120 CE.

In his work ‘Lives of the Caesars’ (c. 120 CE), Suetonius refers to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius, which Suetonius says was ‘since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chestus’.[23] The vast majority of scholars consider this passage to be genuine,[24] and the word ‘Chrestus’ was a common mistaken spelling of ‘Christus’ (meaning ‘Christ’ in Latin).[25] 

Nevertheless, this passage speaks of Jews making disturbances in Rome as a result of ‘Chrestus’, which does not seem to be a reference to Jesus (who was never in Rome). Although Suetonius refers elsewhere to Christians (whom he calls ‘Christiani’), he does not do so in this passage; consequently, this reference in Suetonius is of little use in establishing the historicity of Jesus.[26] [27] [28]

  1. Mara bar Serapion (Syrian writer), c. 73-150 CE.

An non-Christian Syrian writer named Serapion, in a letter to his son (the date of which is still uncertain and debated), refers to a ‘wise king of the Jews’, for whose death God held the Jews responsible, punishing them by exiling them from Judea and scattering them throughout the earth.[29] The only surviving copy of this letter is dated to the seventh century, and Serapion does not name Jesus, but the context suggests he is the ‘wise king’ referred to.[30] [31] This provides some evidence for the historicity of Jesus.


As a result of these sources, Jesus’ existence is considered well established by professional historiography, and the idea that he did not exist is typically not taken seriously.

‘The theory of Jesus’ nonexistence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.’ [32]

Although details of the life of Jesus are still hotly disputed, there is still a very broad agreement on the key events of his life. The following statements are are all agreed on by the overwhelming consensus of peer reviewed professional scholarship on the historicity of Jesus, from those as conservative as Witherington, Blomberg and Habemas, through those less conservative such as Theissen,[33] and Sanders,[34] to those as skeptical as Ehrman (agnostic),[35] Vermès (Jew),[36] [37] [38]and Lüdemann (atheist).[39] [40]

  1. Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, during the reign of Herod the Great.
  2. He had a father (biological or not), called Joseph.
  3. He was baptized in Galilee.
  4. He became an intinerant teacher.
  5. He proclaimed the kingdom of God.
  6. He conducted a healing ministry which involved certain genuine acts of healing.
  7. He taught a subversive and counter-cultural socio-religious ethic expressed in wisdom sayings and parables; Mark 2:19; 3:27; 4:21; 10:25; 12:17, Matthew 5:38-48; 6:9-23; 7:7-8; 11:7-8; 18:12-14; 18:23-25; 20:1-15, Luke 6:20-21; 6:41-42; 9:58; 9:59-60; 10:30-35; 11:24-26; 12:22-31; 13:6-9; 13:20-21; 14:16-24; 15:11-32; 16:1-8a; 17:33; 18:1-8; 20:46 are all considered authentic sayings of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar.
  8. He associated and identified with social outcasts.
  9. He criticized the established Jewish religious elite.
  10. He was arrested and crucified during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, for being a public nuisance and social threat.
  11. He died at around 30 years of age.


[1] Also spelled ‘Thallas’ or ‘Thallus’.

[2] ‘Around 55 C.E., a historian named Thallos wrote in Greek a three-volume chronicle of the eastern Mediterranean area from the fall of Troy to about 50 C.E. Most of his book, like the vast majority of ancient literature, perished, but not before it was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160–ca. 240), a Christian writer, in his History of the World (ca. 220).2 This book likewise was lost, but one of its citations of Thallos was taken up by the Byzantine historian Georgius Syncellus in his Chronicle (ca. 800).’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 20 (2000).

[3] ‘This fragment of Thallos used by Julius Africanus comes in a section in which Julius deals with the portents during the crucifixion of Jesus. Julius argues that Thallos was “wrong” (ἀλογώς) to argue that this was only a solar eclipse, because at full moon a solar eclipse is impossible, and the Passover always falls at full moon. Julius counters that the eclipse was miraculous, “a darkness induced by God.” Thallos could have mentioned the eclipse with no reference to Jesus. But it is more likely that Julius, who had access to the context of this quotation in Thallos and who (to judge from other fragments) was generally a careful user of his sources, was correct in reading it as a hostile reference to Jesus’ death. The context in Julius shows that he is refuting Thallos’ argument that the darkness is not religiously significant.’, ibid., pp. 20-21.

[4]The question of identity aside, the value of this fragment is slight. At best all that it shows is that someone in the first century had learned of the tradition of the darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and then attempted to explain it in natural terms.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 455 (1998).

[5] Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 18.63-64, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).

[6] ‘The clause “if indeed it is right to call him a man” suggests that Jesus was more than human. This looks like a Christian scribe’s correction of the christological implications of calling Jesus only “a wise man.”’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 91 (2000).

[7] ‘The crux of this problem is the curt sentence “He was the Christ” (ὁ Χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν). Leaving aside the issue of how intelligible this statement would have been to Josephus’s Gentile audience,43 this sentence looks like a confession of Jesus as Messiah.’, ibid., p. 91.

[8] ‘The entire sentence, “For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, because the divine prophets had prophesied these and myriad other things about him” is filled with Christian content.’, ibid, p. 92.

[9] Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume One, The Roots of the Problem and the Person’, p. 61 (1991).

[10] Brown, ‘The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 and 2: From Gethsemane to the Grave,  a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels’, p. 375 (1994).

[11] A 12th century Syriac text by Michael the Syrian, published at the same time, is very similar to the text of Agapius.

[12] ‘Hence the most that can be claimed is that Josephus here made some reference to Jesus, which has been retouched by a Christian hand. This is the view argued by Meier as by most scholars today, particularly since S. Pines drew attention to a less obviously Christian version of the  ‘Testimonium’ which is quoted in Arabic translation in a tenth-century Christian work.’, Wells, ‘The Jesus Legend’, p. 28 (1996).

[13]Most scholars today consider the passage authentic, but think it has been extensively altered to reflect core Christian beliefs (italic type in the quotation above indicates those parts of the Testimonium that are usually considered obvious additions by a Christian hand).’, Neufeld, ‘Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament’, p. 40 (2007).

[14]Most scholars are confident that Josephus wrote something like this because the later mention of the Christ in the James citation from Antiquities 20.200 assumes a previous mention of this figure.’, Bock, ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods’, p. 55 (2002).

[15] ‘Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions];’, Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 20.200, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).

[16]That, indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage — the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged — about James, who is termed (A XX, 200) the brother of “the aforementioned Christ.”’, Feldman, ‘Inroduction’, in  Feldman & Hata (eds.), ‘Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity’, p. 56 (1987).

[17]The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found.25 The passage fits its context well. As for its content, a Christian interpolator would have used laudatory language to describe James and especially Jesus, calling him “the Lord” or something similar. At least, as in the passage to be considered next, he would have used the term “Christ” in an absolute way. Josephus’s words “called Christ” are neutral and descriptive, intended neither to confess nor deny Jesus as the “Christ.” Thus Josephus distinguishes this Jesus from the many others he mentions who had this common name.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, pp. 83-84 (2000).

[18] ‘Because he has not been present at such trials before his appointment to Bithynia (to judge from what follows), Pliny has several questions: How should Christians be punished? What are the grounds for investigation, and how far should investigation be pressed? Are any distinctions to be made for age, or for renouncing Christianity? Are Christians to be punished just for being Christians, “for the mere name of Christian,” even though they may not be guilty of “crimes associated with the name”?’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 24 (2000).

[19]Pliny does not deal explicitly with the “historical Jesus.” If he has learned anything in his investigations and interrogations about Jesus, he does not relate it to the emperor.’, ibid., p. 28.

[20] ‘None of these features, of course, add to our knowledge of the Jesus of history.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 459 (1998).

[21] ‘The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate’, Tacitus quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 41 (2000).

[22]The textual integrity of this section has on occasion been doubted. The text has some significant problems, as attested by the standard critical editions.59 These and other difficulties in interpreting the text have also led to a few claims that all of it, or key portions of it, has been interpolated by later hands.60 But there are good reasons for concluding with the vast majority of scholars that this passage is fundamentally sound, despite difficulties which result in no small measure from Tacitus’s own compressed style. The overall style and content of this chapter are typically Tacitean. The passage fits well in its context and is the necessary conclusion to the entire discussion of the burning of Rome. Sulpicius Severus’s Chronicle 2.29 attests to much of it in the early fifth century, so most suggested interpolations would have to have come in the second through fourth centuries.’, ibid., pp. 42-43.

[23] Suetonius quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 30 (2000).

[24] ‘We conclude with the overwhelming majority of modern scholarship that this sentence is genuine.’, ibid., p. 31.

[25] ‘“Christus” was often confused with “Chrestus” by non-Christians, and sometimes even by Christians.’, ibid., p. 34.

[26] ‘Although Suetonius did view Christ as an historical person capable of fomenting unrest,55 his glaring mistakes should caution us against placing too much weight on his evidence for Jesus or his significance for early Christianity.’, ibid., p  39.

[27] ‘The “Jews” may really refer to Christians, who in the first century were viewed as no more than a sect within Judaism itself; or the designation may refer to Jews who quarreled with Christians (along the lines of what we find in Acts). Of the two, the latter interpretation is the more probable.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 457 (1998).

[28] ‘The confusion involved is hardly the work of artifice or contrivance, but certainly weakens the historical value of the text.’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, volume 1, p.  142 (2003).

[29] ‘What advantage did the Athenians gain by murdering Socrates, for which they were repaid with famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, because their country was completely covered in sand in just one hour? Or the Jews [by killing]93 their wise king, because their kingdom was taken away at that very time? God justly repaid the wisdom of these three men: the Athenians died of famine; the Samians were completely overwhelmed by the sea; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, are scattered through every nation.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 54 (2000).

[30] ‘The text contains no specific Christian ideas — except for the expression “the wise king of the Jews,” which may refer to Jesus127 — and therefore is presumably of pagan authorship.’, Possekel, ‘Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian’, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, volume 580, number 102, p. 29 (1999).

[31] ‘The value of this curious comment lies in the apparent fact that by the end of the first century Jesus was regarded in at least some non-Christian circles as the Jews’ “wise king.”’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 456 (1998).

[32] Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 14 (2000).

[33]  Thiessen & Merz, ‘The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide’, pp. 569, 571-572 (1998).

[34] ‘Sanders offered a more concise sketch in The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). – Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great; – he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; – he was baptized by John the Baptist; – he called disciples; – he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); – he preached “the kingdom of God”; – about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; – he created a disturbance in the Temple area; – he had a final meal with the disciples; – he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; – he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.’, Broadhead, ‘Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity’, pp. 64-65 (2010).

[35] Ehrman, ‘Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium’ (1999).

[36] Vermès, ‘Jesus and the World of Judaism’, pp. 11-12 (1984).

[37] ‘Why, then, was Jesus crucified? In Vermes’s subsequent volume, ‘The Religion of Jesus the Jew’, he succinctly summarizes his conclusion: “The arrest and execution of Jesus were due, not direclty to his words and deeds, but to their possible insurrectionary consequences feared by the nervous authorities in charge of law and order in that powder-keg of first-century Jerusalem… He died on the cross for having done the wrong thing (caused a commotion) in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (just before Passover)” (x).’, Keck, ‘Who is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense’, p. 41 (2001).

[38] ‘”The Synoptists are unanimous in presenting him as an exorcist, healer and teacher. They also emphasize that the deepest impression made by Jesus on his contemporaries resulted from his mastery over devils and disease, and the magnetic power of his preaching.”’, Vermes, quoted by Scott, ‘New Options in An Old Quest’, in Greenspoon et al. (eds.), ‘The Historical Jesus Through Catholic and Jewish Eyes’, pp. 7-8 (2000).

[39] Lüdemann, ‘The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did’, pp. 77, 83, 96-97 (1999), and ‘Jesus After Two Thousand Years: what he really said and did’, pp. 689-690 (2001).

[40] ‘Lüdemann even concludes that ‘the activity of Jesus in driving out demons is one of the most certain historical facts about his life’ (Jesus 13).’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, p. 677 (2003).

Widowfield on McGrath: Brodie, Vermes, & parallelomania

July 13, 2013 4 comments

Tim Widowfield has commented critically on a review by James McGrath, of Thomas Brodie’s book ‘Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery‘ (2012). This article considers Widowfield’s criticisms.

Bad faith

Widowfield accuses McGrath of “bad faith in dealing with mythicists”, pointing to McGrath’s review of Brodie’s work as “a prime example”.

Well, here’s a prime example from McGrath’s scathing remarks about Brodie’s suggestion that Paul’s supposed profession may have something more to do with theology than with history.

His treatment of the case of Paul, like Brodie’s work on Jesus, illustrates both the usefulness of detecting literary parallels, echoes, and borrowings, and the bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme that Brodie does, into the realm of unchecked paralellomania [sic]. His argument that mundane details about Paul were fabricated on the basis of earlier literature includes the claim that the reference to Paul having been a tentmaker was inspired by references to tents in the Jewish Scriptures, including God spreading out the heavens like a tent (p.151). Using such an approach, being willing to claim even identical prepositions as evidence of literary dependence, is a method which could claim that absolutely anything is derived from absolutely anything else. The sad thing is that the bizarre extremes to which Brodie is willing to go to make one text wholly derivative from another cheapens and detracts from the legitimate points he makes about the smaller number of texts and points of contact that have strong evidence in their favor. (emphasis mine)

That’s quite an accusation. Does Brodie really claim that some writings are based on others because of “identical prepositions”? Perhaps so, but McGrath doesn’t give us any specifics.

Bizarre and extreme

After quoting McGrath, Widowfield explains why he feels this is an example of bad faith on McGrath’s part.

Note the scare words in that paragraph. Brodie’s ideas are “bizarre” and “extreme.” Brodie, McGrath is telling us, has failed to show restraint. How do we know he’s gone too far? Because he’s reached the wrong conclusions. You see, sophisticated NT scholars know how the game is played. A writer needs to find that Goldilocks Zone, where the Jesus porridge is ju-u-u-ust right. Anyone out on the “fringes” can be ignored (and insulted), because they either accept too much material as authentic or because they accept too little.

Widowfield claims McGrath says Brodie’s ideas are bizarre and extreme. In fact McGrath does not say this. Here are McGrath’s words, as quoted and emphasized by Widowfield.

His treatment of the case of Paul, like Brodie’s work on Jesus, illustrates both the usefulness of detecting literary parallels, echoes, and borrowings, and the bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme that Brodie does, into the realm of unchecked paralellomania [sic]

Firstly, McGrath makes the point that Brodie’s work “illustrates the usefulness of detecting literary parallels, echoes, and borrowings”; McGrath states specifically that the kind of pattern detection in which Brodie is involved, is valid and useful. Additionally, McGrath acknowledges “legitimate points” made by Brodie “about the smaller number of texts and points of contact that have strong evidence in their favor”.  So McGrath not only acknowledges Brodie’s approach is a valid literary treatment, but also acknowledges it has “legitimate points” with conclusions “that have strong evidence in their favor”. Widowfield makes no mention of any of this, despite quoting McGrath directly. Instead he claims McGrath simply says “Brodie’s ideas are “bizarre” and “extreme””.

Secondly, McGrath does not uses the word ‘bizarre’ in the way Widowfield claims. Contrary to Widowfield’s claim, McGrath does not say “Brodie’s ideas are “bizarre” and “extreme””. What he says is that Brodie’s work illustrates “the bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme that Brodie does, into the realm of unchecked parallelomania”. It is the results of Brodie’s extremism that McGrath refers to as “bizarre”, the “bizarre extremes to which Brodie is willing to go” (emphasis mine).

Thirdly, McGrath never says that Brodie “has failed to show restraint”, nor does he say the evidence Brodie has gone too far is “he’s [sic] reached the wrong conclusions”. The term he uses is “unchecked parallelomania”, objecting to Brodie’s appeal to parallels without a systematic check for validation and falsification. Later  in McGrath’s article he repeats this, pointing out that any literary work can be interpreted as the product of literary borrowing “as long as one’s penchant for parallelomania knows no restraints”. McGrath also cites Brodie’s “complete disregard for other possibilities”, reinforcing the fact that it is Brodie’s lack of methodical validation of his theory to which McGrath objects, not simply that Brodie has reached a conclusion with which McGrath disagrees.

Paul the tentmaker & Godfrey on parallels

McGrath took issue with what he describes as Brodie’s clam that “claim that the reference to Paul having been a tentmaker was inspired by references to tents in the Jewish Scriptures, including God spreading out the heavens like a tent (p.151)”. In response, Widowfield invites readers to “examine all of Brodie’s reasons, and not just the ones McGrath scoffed at”. He then simply lists the four points of Brodie’s reasons for his case, though he does not actually examine any of them.

So, to McGrath’s specific point on Paul as a tentmaker: Is this an outlandish idea? Well, let’s examine all of Brodie’s reasons, and not just the ones McGrath scoffed at. First of all, Brodie admits that the reference in Acts 13:3 sounds legitimate. However, he says that before we take it at face value, “it is necessary first to investigate the literary relationship of tent-making to the Septuagint image of the tent and to the image of Paul as architect (1 Cor. 3:10-11).”

  1. The term in 1 Corinthians is quite specific: σοφὸς ἀρχιτέκτων (sophos architektōn) or “wise master builder or architect.” Cf. to the Jewish tradition of calling   wise Rabbis, doctors of the law, and their followers “builders of the law.”
  2. “In Isaiah, God spreads out the earth as a tent.”
  3. “[T]ents are given a central role among people of the desert.”
  4. In John’s gospel, we’re told that the Word sojourned or “tented among us.” (John 1.14) In Greek: ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν (eskēnōsen en hēmin).

He could also have mentioned the importance of the tabernacle (portable tent shrine) in the OT as the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH dwelt or “tented” with his people wherever they might roam. He might also have discussed the importance of the tabernacle in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Widowfield makes no further comment on Brodie’s argument, and does not actually examine any of Brodie’s points as he said he would do. Nevertheless, he does not provide readers with any reasons for accepting Brodie’s argument as valid. No explanation is provided as for why this list of verses makes a logically coherent case for Paul’s occupation being a literary invention in the manner claimed by Brodie, and why this is a more efficient explanation than any alternatives.

For a more critical analysis of Brodie’s suggested parallels between texts, some of Neil Godfrey’s comments are quite useful. In response to a claim made on one of Godfrey’s articles that the Elijah/Elisha narrative in the Old Testament, and the Jesus/John the baptist narrative in the New testament are “the same allegorical tale of a solar myth” (accompanied by two links to articles arguing for literary dependence on the basis of parallelism), Godfrey was quite critical of the theory, explaining “I have three difficulties with this, if I may“. His three specific criticisms are worth citing for their relevance to Brodie’s work, and agree very well with McGrath’s own criticisms of parallels drawn by Jesus mythicists.

1. Showing a correlation of concepts does not of itself show us causal or direct linkages.

Godfrey makes an excellent point here. In fact this is the first point to be made when considering Brodie’s lists of alleged parallels; mere correlation is insufficient evidence for “causal or direct linkages”.

2. The correlations are put together not from a single work but from a range of sources, e.g. from 3 different gospels, not from one coherent document expressing a unified thought.

Again, an excellent observation from Godfrey on the parallelism he was criticizing. In the same way, the texts cited by Brodie in support of his claim that Paul’s attributed occupation as “tentmaker” is a literary invention, come from a range of sources; one of the earliest authentic letters of Paul (1 Corinthians), the Old Testament book of Isaiah, and John’s gospel (considered by scholarly consensus to have been written long after the book of Acts). They certainly do not come “one coherent document expressing a unified thought”. It is possible that Brodie actually makes a coherent argument as to the relevance of these texts, and explains logically the basis on which they support his argument concerning the attributed occupation of Paul. However, Widowfield does not describe any such argument made by Brodie.

3. What alternative explanations are there for the similarities? Can any of these be tested and found to have more validity than others?

Godfrey’s third point is equally relevant to Brodie’s claims. What alternative explanations does Brodie present, and in what way does he test all of his options to see which have the greatest validity? Widowfield does not tell us. Yet this is an important point, which Godfrey has made on more than one occasion when dismissing the parallelism arguments made by others, as he does here.

So your argument does indeed come down a propensity to see patterns for which you sometimes say (incorrectly) that there are no other explanations. There are indeed other explanations, and when I point one out to you you reply that I should go beyond the evidence and leap to your speculation.

In contrast, Godfrey is generally enthusiastic about Brodie’s arguments (“Some of his literary borrowings strike me as spot-on!“), though he also says “I sometimes find myself in a love-hate relationship with them“. Nevertheless, he insists “Brodie’s arguments do NOT lend themselves to a facile “parallelomania”“. For Godfrey, Brodie’s arguments are superior to the parallelism arguments which Godfrey criticizes in other people’s work, such as the supporters of astrotheology, whose arguments for parallelism Godfrey dismisses out of hand without even feeling the need to explore the subject first (emphasis in the following quotations is mine).

Now I am quite open to the possibility that Christianity began as some sort of astrotheology cult or whatever, but before I am persuaded to investigate that possibility in any depth I would need to see something more than rhetorical declamations of woolly correlations as an argument.

I have never taken the time before to explore astrotheology, not because I have some psychological block against the very idea, but because I have never seen any pointers to actual evidence or valid methodology. I have only seen “parallelomania” and subjective patterns being constructed across all the data the way we sometimes see magnificent shapes in the clouds.

Rhetorical questions

Widowfield represents McGrath as being irritated that Brodie has chosen to answer questions which are supposed to be rhetorical.

But the main point to understand is this: The New Testament is replete with examples of additions, deletions, and alterations that have their roots not in tradition, but in authorial invention. Brodie’s sin is answering that rhetorical question: “Why would anybody make it up?” Brodie says, “Here’s why, and here’s how.” And that drives people like McGrath round the bend.

McGrath does not say anything like this. It is therefore no surprise that Widowfield presents no quotation from McGrath in an attempt to justify his claim. McGrath certainly never takes Brodie to task for answering the question “Why would anyone make it up?”. McGrath does take Brodie to task for not making a case that his explanation is more logically coherent and more efficient than alternative explanations, which McGrath refers to as a “complete disregard for other possibilities“.

It illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers, not because there is ingrained antipathy to it in the academy, but because the case for it is based on thoroughly unpersuasive arguments, and the complete disregard for other possibilities, such as that either Jesus himself or an author like Luke deliberately made a comparison and contrast between Jesus and Elijah.

Theological meanings

In support of Brodie’s arguments, Widowfield cites examples of occupations

We should mention that occupations in the New Testament and in later Christian tradition often have theological meanings. We have fishermen who become “fishers of men.” We have Mary, who was supposed to have been a weaver (or a spinner of wool) — and who created the very temple veil that split down the middle during the crucifixion. Some people still believe this story is true.

However, neither of these examples are analogous to Brodie’s claim concerning Paul’s occupation. Brodie claims Paul’s occupation was a literary invention derived from a combination of texts for theological reasons, but Widowfield does not cite any examples which do this. On the contrary, he simply cites occupations which he claims “have theological meanings”.

Widowfield cites “fishermen who become “fishers of men”, but provides no evidence that the occupation “fishermen” has a theological meaning here; on the contrary, it is clear “fishermen” has a literal meaning, referring to “Simon and his brother casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen)” (Mark 1:14). The phrase “I will make you fishers of men” which follows (Mark 1:17), is an example of a play on the literal meaning of the word; in both cases the Greek word ἁλιεύς (halieus), means ‘fishermen’. The occupation of Mary was only attributed to her much later in Christian tradition (as Widowfield notes), not in a Biblical text, and Widowfield provides no evidence that this was an occupation with a theological meaning at the time the gospel was written. This is no parallel at all to Brodie’s argument concerning Paul’s occupation.

What Vermes does which Brodie doesn’t

Widowfield introduces a comparison between the work of Géza Vermes and that of Brodie, with a quotation from Vermes.

Finally, we have a muddied reference to Jesus as a laborer or carpenter. On this last point, Geza Vermes had this to say in Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels:

Was he a carpenter himself, or was he only the son of a carpenter? The confused state of the Greek text of the Gospels usually indicates either a) a doctrinal difficulty thought by some to demand rewording; or b) the existence of a linguistic problem in the expression in Hellenistic terms of something typically Jewish. Here the second alternative applies The congregation in the synagogue voices astonishment.

‘Where does he get it from?’ ‘What wisdom is this … ?’ ‘Is not this the carpenter/the son of the carpenter … ?’

Now those familiar with the language spoken by Jesus are acquainted with a metaphorical use of ‘carpenter’ and ‘carpenter’s son’ in ancient Jewish writings. In Talmudic sayings the Aramaic noun denoting carpenter or craftsman (naggar) stands for a ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’.

This is something that no carpenter, son of carpenters, can explain.

There is no carpenter, nor a carpenter’s son, to explain it.

Thus, although no one can be absolutely sure that the sayings cited in the Talmud were current already in first-century AD Galilee, proverbs such as these are likely to be age-old. If so, it is possible that the charming picture of ‘Jesus the carpenter’ may have to be buried and forgotten. (p. 23, emphasis mine)

Widowfield does not explain what he means by “a muddied reference to Jesus as a laborer or carpenter”. Since Vermes refers to what he calls “The confused state of the Greek text of the Gospels” with regard to the references to Jesus as a carpenter (Mark 6:3), or son of a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), it is possible Widowfield drew the conclusion that the Greek in the text is obscure in meaning, or of doubtful certainty. In fact neither is the case. In both passages the Greek is certain, with the alternative reading “son of a carpenter” (ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱὸς, ho tou tektonos huios), in Mark 6:3, only appearing in the 3rd century P45, the late medieval f13 manuscripts, a number of the late minuscules, and a few of the Old Latin manuscripts (the Syriac manuscript Syrhr omits the word for “carpenter” in Mark 6:3).

Vermes appears to be referring to the fact that Mark 6:3 refers to Jesus as a carpenter, whereas Matthew 13:55 refers to him as the son of a carpenter. Regardless, the text is certain in both places; the manuscripts simply differ in their descriptions. Vermes suggests this is a result of an Aramaic term of reference being confused by later Greek writers, “the existence of a linguistic problem in the expression in Hellenistic terms of something typically Jewish”. This suggestion was adopted from Vermes by German theologian Rainer Riesner, but has been criticized by scholars such as John Meier, not least because it relies on a hypothetical Aramaic source for which there is no evidence, and parallels of uncertain date, in Jewish literature. Meier critiques the suggestion thus (emphasis mine).

“Sometimes, to bolster this suggestion, appeal is made to the Aramaic word supposedly behind the tektōn of our Greek Gospels, namely naggārāʾ.170 But naggārāʾ, like tektōn, has a wide range of meanings: carpenter, turner, artisan, and, in a metaphorical sense, master or artist.171 Even if we were sure that this is the precise Aramaic word behind tektōn in our Greek text, it would prove nothing.

Riesner, however, pushes the significance of this hypothetical Aramaic source even further by appealing to some later talmudic passages, where naggārāʾ seems to mean “scholar,” while bar naggārāʾ (“son of the carpenter”) means “student, disciple.”172 From this Riesner concludes that people in the “carpenter” trade were known for their knowledge of Scripture. Since all the talmudic passages of this sort are of proverbial nature and hence of venerable age, Riesner argues that the connection between a carpenter and special knowledge of Scripture could reach back to Jesus’ day. One can only comment that such reasoning leans heavily on very slight and late evidence. Talmudic proverbs could preserve material two or three hundred years old and still not bring us back to the lifetime of Jesus. What is perhaps most telling here is that Riesner can supply no examples of this usage from the earliest rabbinic compilation, the Mishna.” [1]

The suggestion has also been rejected by other scholars, typically because it does not fit the context of the passage at all.

For the implausible conjecture that ‘carpenter’ was used of Jesus in a metaphorical sense to mean ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’ see Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pp. 21-2. He cited y. Yeb. 9b; y. Qidd. 66a; and b. ‘Abod. Zar. 50b.” [2]

“This interpretation requires dismissing the gospel context.”[4]

“But the term in Mk 6:3 clearly is not used in that sense. Mark’s point is that because Jesus was only a carpenter, the residents of Nazareth refused to listen to him. Otherwise, the passage makes no sense.”[5]

No one in the passage is talking about a problem which only a scholar could solve, or the lack of a scholar to solve a problem. They are astonished and ask “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands?” (Mark 6:2).

To suggest they answer their own question by saying ‘Is this not the scholar, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3), would suggest they answer by acknowledging Jesus is a scholar and miracle worker, which contradicts the very next statement that “they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3), and the statement that Jesus “was amazed because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5). It also fails to explain why they are described as astonished.

Vermes himself acknowledged the lack of conclusive evidence for the parallel; “no one can be absolutely sure that the sayings cited in the Talmud were current already in first-century AD Galilee”. According to one scholar, Vermes later abandoned this interpretation.[3] This is supported by Vermes’ references to Jesus in his much later work ‘Searching for the Real Jesus: Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Religions Themes’ (2009).

In this book, Vermes says “This very human person, who is the subject of Jesus the Jew, was a carpenter in the village of Nazareth” (p. 20), “They [the gospels] report that Jesus lived with his parent, Joseph and Mary, his four brothers and several sisters in Nazareth in the Galilee ruled by Antipas, Herod’s son, and was a carpenter or builder” (p. 41), and “He was a builder or a carpenter” (p. 36). Widowfield quoted Vermes’ work written in 1981, but appears unfamiliar with Vermes’ most recent work and the evidence for his change of view.

Widowfield then draws a comparison between Vermes and Brodie, with a rhetorical question.

“Was Vermes a parallelomaniac using unsound methods to reach “bizarre extremes”? Brodie, after all, said that Paul’s identification as a tentmaker could have literary, metaphorical meanings that later became historicized.”

There are several reasons why this comparison is invalid.

1. Vermes was fully aware of the conjectural nature of his proposal, and stated it cautiously, giving due weight to the lack of supporting evidence. Accordingly, four qualifications accompany Vermes’ statement; “no one can be absolutely sure”, ‘If so'”, “it is possible”, “may”.

 “Thus, although no one can be absolutely sure that the sayings cited in the Talmud were current already in first-century AD Galilee, proverbs such as these are likely to be age-old. If so, it is possible that the charming picture of ‘Jesus the carpenter’ may have to be buried and forgotten.”

2. Vermes cited relevant literature in which a parallel could plausibly have been found, and made a testable case for his theory, on the basis of textual evidence. Consequently, it was falsifiable and it has been falsified.

3. After his view was subjected to sustained criticism (though perhaps not because of this), Vermes later changed his mind and abandoned the view he had held previously.

None of this finds any parallel with Brodie.


[1] Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus’, volume one, pp. 283-284 (1991).

[2] Davies & Alison, Jr, ‘Matthew 8-18’, International Critical Commentary, p. 456 (2004).

[3] ‘Even Easterman’s use of the metaphorical understanding of the Aramaic naggar, not as is literal meaning of ‘carpenter’ but ‘scholar’, is based on Vermes’s work, although the latter has since retracted that view.’, Lim, ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction’, p. 15 (2005).

[4] Davies & Alison, Jr, ‘Matthew 8-18’, International Critical Commentary, p. 456 (2004).

[5] Fiensy, ‘Jesus the Galilean: Soundings in a First Century Life’, p. 69 (2007).

How did the early Christians baptize?

March 13, 2013 5 comments

The Challenge

In the 19th century many scholars denied that immersion was the original mode of baptism.[1] McKay and Rogers wrote influential interpretations of the archaeological evidence,[2] and Dale’s linguistic study became the standard lexical resource for the anti-immersion position.[3]

The Facts

The Greek word for baptism refers to dipping, plunging, or immersion in both the Septuagint and the New Testament.[4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] 

Major studies by Lothar Heiser (1986), Sandford La Sor (1987), Jean‐Charles Picard (1989), Malka Ben Pachat (1989), and Everett Ferguson (2009), all agree the archaeological and textual evidence indicates full immersion was the earliest normal Christian practice.[13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18]

The earliest Christian record of baptism outside the New Testament,[19] [20] proves 1st century Christians normally baptized by immersion.[21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26]

The scholarly consensus is that full immersion was the normal practice of the earliest Christians.[27] [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] [33]  [34]  [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] [40]


[1] Among many others, Thorn, ‘Modern Immersion Not Scripture Baptism’ (1831), Kerr, ‘A Treatise on the Mode of Baptism: showing the unfounded nature of the assumption, that immersion is the only proper mode of administering the ordinance and that pouring or sprinkling, is the most scriptural and significant, and by far the preferable mode of its administration’ (1844), Beckwith, ‘Immersion Not Baptism’ (1858), Kerr, ‘The Heavenly Father’s Teaching: a pedo‐Baptist’s reply to immersionists shewing that Baptism is not immersion, and that immersion is not Baptism, for they are direct opposites’ (1874), Bush, ‘Bible Baptism Never Immersion’ (1888).

[2] McKay, ‘Immersion Proved to be Not a Scriptural Mode of Baptism but a Romish Invention’ (1884), Rogers, ‘Baptism and Christian Archeology’ (1903).

[3] Dale, ‘Inquiry Into the Usage of Baptizo’ (1824‐1879).

[4] ‘In the Sept.: 2 Kgs. 5:13, 14 we have loúō (3068), to bathe and baptízomai. See also 28, 40;&version=ESV; Lev. 11:25, 28, 40, where plúnō (4150), to wash clothes by dipping, and loúō (3068), to bathe are used. In 19;&version=ESV; Num. 19:18, 19, báphō, to dip, and plúnō, to wash by dipping are used’, Zodhiates, ‘The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament’ (electronic ed. 2000).

[5] ‘In Mark 7:4 the verb wash in “except they wash” is baptízomai, to immerse. This indicates that the washing of the hands was done by immersing them in collected water. ‘, ibid.

[6] ‘The sevenfold dipping of Naaman (2 K. 5:14) perhaps suggests sacramental ideas and illustrates the importance of the Jordan. In the later Jewish period טבל (b. Ber., 2b of the bathing of priests; Joma, 3, 2ff. etc.)’, Kittel, Bromiley, & Friedrich (eds.), ‘Theological dictionary of the New Testament’, volume 1, p. 535 (electronic ed. 1964–c1976).

[7] ‘Βαπτίζω+ V 0‐1‐1‐0‐2=4 2 Kgs 5,14; Is 21,4; Jdt 12,7; Sir 34,25 M to dip oneself 2 Kgs 5,14; to wash Jdt 12,7′, Lust, Eynikel, & Hauspie (eds.), ‘A Greek‐English Lexicon of the Septuagint’ (rev. electronic ed. 2003).

[8]  ‘baptizō 77x pr. to dip, immerse;’, Mounce, ‘Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words’, pp. 1104‐1105 (2006).

[9] ‘In Gk. lit. gener. to put or go under water in a variety of senses, also fig., e.g. ‘soak’ Pla., Symp. 176b in wine)’, Arndt, Danker, & Bauer (eds.) ‘A Greek‐English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature’, p. 164 (3rd ed. 2000).

[10] ‘1. In the LXX baptō usually translates the OT Heb. ṭāḇal, dip (13 times; on 3 occasions baptō represents other vbs.). baptizō occurs only 4 times: in Isa. 21:4 it is used metaphorically of destruction, but in 2 Ki. 5:14 it is used in the mid. of Naaman’s sevenfold immersion in the Jordan (the only passages as equivalent for Heb. ṭāḇal).’, Brown, ‘New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology’, volume 1, p. 144 (1986).

[11] ‘Despite assertions to the contrary, it seems that baptizō, both in Jewish and Christian contexts, normally meant “immerse”, and that even when it became a technical term for baptism, the thought of immersion remains. The use of the term for cleansing vessels (as in Lev. 6:28 Aquila [cf. 6:21]; cf. baptismos in Mk. 7:4) does not prove the contrary, since vessels were normally cleansed by immersing them in water. The metaphorical uses of the term in the NT appear to take this for granted, e.g. the prophecy that the Messiah will baptise in Spirit and fire as a liquid (Matt. 3:11), the “baptism” of the Israelites in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor. 10:2), and in the idea of Jesus’ death as a baptism (Mk. 10:38f. baptisma; Lk. 12:50; cf. Ysebaert, op. cit., 41 ff.).’, ibid., p. 144.

[12] ‘Lexicographers universally agree that the primary meaning of baptizo G966 is ‘to dip’ or ‘to immerse”, and there is a similar consensus of scholarly opinion that both the baptism of John and of the apostles was by immersion’, Jewett, ‘Baptism’, in Murray (ed.), ‘Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible’, volume 1, p.466 (rev. ed. 2009).

[13] ‘The philological evidence is technical and inconclusive. But the archaeological and Mishnaic evidence seems to support the argument for immersion., Sanford La Sor, ‘Discovering What Jewish Miqva’ot Can Tell Us About Christian Baptism’, Biblical Archaeology Review, (13.01), 1987.

[14] ‘The conclusions of Lothar Heiser on the administration of baptism after examining the literary and pictorial evidence accord with mine: the water customarily reached the hips of the baptizand; after calling on the triune God, the priest bent the baptizand under so as to dip him in water over the head; in the cases of pouring in the Didache and in sickbed baptism the baptized did not stand in the font.’, Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: history, theology, and
liturgy in the first five centuries’, p. 860 (2009).

[15] ‘Either bending his knees, kneeling, or sitting, an adult could have been totally immersed as required in fonts from 1.30m to 60cm deep.’. ibid., p. 852.

[16] ‘The express statements in the literary sources, supported by other hints, the depictions in art, and the very presence of specially built baptismal fonts, along  with their size and shape, indicate that the normal procedure was for the administrator with his head on the baptizand’s head to bend the upper part of the body forward and dip the head under the water.’, ibid, pp. 857‐858.

[17] ‘The Christian literary sources, backed by secular word usage and Jewish religious immersions, give an overwhelming support for full immersion as the normal action. Exceptions in cases of lack of water and especially of sickbed baptism were made. Submersion was undoubtedly the case for the fourth and fifth centuries in the Greek East, and only slightly less certain for the Latin West.’, ibid., p. 891.

[18] ‘Later church practice in this regard led artists to the strange fantasy of Jesus standing waist deep in water while John poured water on his head (such pictures do not occur until medieval western times).’, ibid., p. 202.

[19] ‘It contains details of the church life of the earliest Christians, their preference for baptism by immersion, their fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, the forms of their eucharistic prayers.’, Manion & Mudge, ‘The Routledge Companion to the Christian Church’, pp. 42–43 (2008).

[20] ‘In the Didache 7 (a.d. 100–160), the oldest baptismal manual extant, triple immersion is assumed,’ (Silva & Tenney (eds.), ‘The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, volume 1, pp. 494‐495. (rev. ed. 2009).

[21] ‘Baptism is by *immersion if possible” (Cross & Livingstone (eds.), ‘The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church’, p. 482 (3rd rev. ed. 2005).

[22] ‘One witnesses the fasting and the solemn rite of baptism, preferably by immersion in flowing water.’, Milavec, “Didache”, p. ix (2003).

[23] ‘According to the Didache (1st century), baptism should be done by a triple immersion in running water.’, Lacoste, ‘Encyclopedia of Christian Theology: G‐O’, p. 1607 (2005).

[24] ‘The argument of the section is clear: while adhering strictly to the preference for flowing water and baptism by immersion, necessary concessions are made to local circumstances.’, Draper, “The Didache In Modern Research”, p. 47 (1996).

[25] ‘As a rule, it involved immersion in running water (see Acts 8:38; Did. 7).’, Fahlbusch & Bromiley (eds.), ‘Encyclopedia of Christianity’., volume 1, p.184 (1990‐2003).

[26] ‘Baptism is by immersion in the threefold name, but sprinkling three times on the head is allowed in an emergency.’, Vokes, ‘Life and Order In An Early Church:The Didache’, in Haase (ed.), ‘Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Romischen Welt’, volume 2, p. 221 (1993).

[27] ‘New Testament scholars generally agree that the early church baptized by immersion.’, Wiersbe, ‘Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament’, pp. 466‐467 (1997).

[28] ‘Most scholars agree that immersion was practiced in the NT, and it is likely that both of these texts allude to the practice, even though baptism is not the main point of either text.’, Schreiner, ‘Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ’, p. 81 (2007).

[29] ‘Furthermore, modern NT scholars generally concede, regardless of denominational affiliation, that Christian baptism in NT times was by immersion, as it was and still is in Judaism.’, Helyer, ‘Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period’, p. 481 (2002).

[30] ‘The baptism commanded by Jesus in the making of disciples is an immersion in water. The topic formerly was warmly debated, but in these days there is general scholarly agreement. Several lines of evidence converge in support of the baptismal action as a dipping.’, Ferguson, ‘The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today’, p. 201 (1996).

[31] ‘It seems also that the profession was articulated in responses that the one being baptized made to the questions of the one baptizing during the baptismal rite, which in general was required to take place through total immersion, in total nudity, in running water.’, DiBerardino, ‘We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’, p. 88 (2009).

[32] ‘Baptism in the Bible was by immersion, that is, the person went fully under the waters,’, Lang, ‘Everyday Biblical Literacy: the essential guide to biblical allusions in art, literature, and life’, p. 47 (2007).

[33] ‘The earliest preference was for baptism in running streams or in the sea (Mark 1:9; Acts 8:36; Didache 7). Next in preference was total immersion in a fountain or bath‐sized tank (Tertullian, Baptism 4).’, Flinn, ‘Baptism’, in ‘Encyclopedia of Catholicism’, Encyclopedia of World Religions, p. 52 (2007).

[34] ‘Baptism was normally by immersion either in the river or in the bath‐house of a large house’, Dowley (ed.), ‘Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity’, p.10 (1977).

[35] ‘There is little doubt that early Christian baptism was adult baptism by immersion’, Grimes, ‘Deeply Into the Bone: Re‐Inventing Rites of Passage’, p. 50 (2002).

[36] ‘Our study has not attempted to demonstrate that affusion rather than immersion was the practice in New Testament times, since it is clear that immersion was the general rule;’, Marshall, ‘The Meaning of the Verb “Baptize”’, in Porter & Cross (eds.), ‘Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Studies’, p. 23 (2002).

[37] ‘We can be fairly sure that early baptism was not normally by sprinkling. Other possible alternatives were pouring (affusion) and immersion. Probably immersion was the norm.’, Guy, ‘Introducing Early Christianity: A
Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs, and Practice, pp. 224‐225 (2004).

[38] ‘In the early days of the Church, total immersion, often in streams or rivers, seems to have been most commonly used (Mark 1:9; Acts 8:3).’, Tischler, ‘All Things in the Bible: A‐L’, p. 59 (2006).

[39] ‘Saunder and Louw comment, ‘Obviously the phrases “going down” and “coming up” are used to focus on the two processes involved in immersion.’ Clearly the evidence from such accounts favors strongly the notion that baptism was by immersion.’, Ware, ‘Believers’ Baptism View’, in Wright (ed.), ‘Baptism: Three Views’, p. 22 (2009).

[40] ‘Stander and Louw, Baptism in the Early Church, p. 25, argue similarly for understanding the prevailing practice of the early church to be that of immersion from several other citations of various church fathers and documents, included among them Aristides of Athens, Clement of Alexandria (p. 31), Tertullian (pp. 36‐37), Hippolytus (p. 42), and Basil the Great (who practiced tri‐immersion, p. 82).’, ibid., p. 22.

Godfrey on historiography 1: Polybius & Livy

March 11, 2013 28 comments

Classicist and historian Michael Grant is known for his popularization of Greek and Roman history. Neil Godfrey has criticized one of Grant’s works in particular, ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’ (1992), in two articles (here and here), accusing Grant of ‘talking through his hat‘, ‘unprofessional nonsense‘, and  ‘imaginative fantasies‘. This article will focus on one of Godfrey’s objections to Grant, specifically Grant’s comparison of the gospels to the historical works of the Greek historian Polybius and and the Roman historian Livy.

Godfrey’s objection

Godfrey quotes the following statement from ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’ (page 200), in which Grant states that discrepancies between historical accounts of an event do not mean that the event they are both describing never actually took place. Citing the differences in the gospel accounts, Grant cites discrepancies in the histories of Polybius and Livy when describing the same events.

Certainly, there are all those discrepancies between one Gospel and another. But we do not deny that an event every took place just because pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms. That there was a growth of legend around Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend round pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious.

Godfrey objects to this comparison on the following grounds.

Of course no-one disputes events if Livy and Polybius describe them differently. Firstly, look at the different ways Livy and Polybius describe Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. The facts are not in dispute. One does not say Hannibal crossed the Alps after he invaded Italy and another before; one does not say he crossed with his army while another says the army crossed without him. These would be the sorts of differences we would expect if Livy’s and Polybius’s accounts are comparable to what we find in the Gospels. Rather, most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal: the patriotic Livy hates him while Polybius, a Greek historian, is more neutral. Yes, the Gospels also contain different attitudes towards the disciples, towards Jews and Romans. But they also contain much more significant contradictions that really do undermine their credibility as accounts ultimately derived from singular noteworthy events.

Godfrey links to the site of John D Clare, a professional historian. The specific page to which Godfrey links, provides an English translation of both Polybius and Livy’s account of the Carthaginian military leader Hannibal, crossing the European Alps during his invasion of Italy. Godfrey offers this page in support of his claim although Polybius and Livy describe Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps differently, ‘most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal‘, and none of the differences are equivalent to the differences found between the gospel descriptions of certain events.

Clare’s page contains a large number of detailed notes on the historical accounts of Polybius and Livy. It is unclear whether Godfrey has read these notes, which provide a useful way of comparing Godfrey’s assessment of these historical sources, with the assessment of a professional historian. Unlike Godfrey, Clare notes  a large number of substantive discrepancies between Polybius and Livy, as well as a number of historical ambiguities which are impossible to settle given the lack of information given by either historian, or by their misuse of their sources.

The historical sources for Hannibal

Polybius was contemporary with Hannibal, whereas Livy was writing over 100 years after Hannibal had died. These two historians are relied on as providing the most detailed historical accounts, having drawn from earlier sources (Polybius knew eyewitnesses of the war with Hannibal); Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos, and Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia, are two additional sources on the life of Hannibal, though Nepos was writing over 200 years after Hannibal had died, and Arrian was writing around 100 years after Nepos.

Yet despite the wealth of historical sources for Hannibal, and the close proximity of his earliest biographers, considerable uncertainty remains about his early life, character, and motivation.

The true character of Hannibal eludes us. None of our sources provide the equivalent of the anecdotes told about the childhood and family life of the important Greek and Roman politicians of the era, many of whom were the subject of detailed biographies. We can say a good deal about what Hannibal did during his career, and often understand how he did it, but we can say virtually nothing with any certainty about what sort of man he was. As with so much else about Carthage and its leaders, there are so many things that we simply do not know, that even our sources probably did not understand. Was Hannibal for instance a Hellenized aristocrat who dreamed of copying and surpassing the great expeditions of Alexander or Pyrrhus, or did he remain very much the Punic nobleman with a very different set of beliefs and ambitions? Much as we try to understand Hannibal, he will always remain an enigma.’[1]

As we shall see, there is also considerable uncertainty about his famous crossing of the Alps. Historian Dexter Hoyos notes that reconstruction of any topic concerning the history of the Punic Wars itself is contentious, specifically due to the discrepancies and contradictions between the available sources.

‘Predictably, there are enough discrepancies and sometimes contradictions between accounts to make the task of establishing a reasonably true picture of any topic a contentious one.’[2]

Polybius & Livy as historians

Both Polybius and Livy have their strengths and weaknesses as historians of the life of Hannibal, but Godfrey does not mention any of their weaknesses in his description of them; instead he assures us that ‘Their works find independent support in other sources’.

We know who Polybius and Livy were, when they were born, where they lived, whom they knew and met, their political and social status, where they traveled, and why they wrote their respective histories of Rome. That is, we understand their interests and reasons for writing, and their interest and ability in writing a generally factual history. Their works find independent support in other sources.

Polybius is considered the better historian of Hannibal, given that he was a contemporary and was able to consult eyewitness accounts. Yet although Polybius identifies his two Roman sources for his description of the First Punic War, he casts doubt on their reliability.[3] When describing the Second Punic War, Polybius rarely mentions his sources, and typically does not identify them by name.[4] Historians identify Polybius’ Roman sources for the Second Punic War by a process of informed guesswork.

In his entire description of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (book 3, chapters 49-56), Polybius does not name or even cite a single identifiable source, and his account contains almost no geographically identifiable place names. Hoyos has noted that Polybius ‘can be vague or simply wrong at times: as in his narrative, almost place-name free, of Hannibal’s passage over the Alps and his implausible account of Scipo’s early political career’.[5] Nevertheless, Polybius is generally considered the most reliable historian on the Punic Wars, and one of the best historians of ancient Rome.

John Clare’s assessment of Livy is highly critical, citing Livy’s inability to reconcile contradictions between his sources, failing to identify biases in his sources, carelessness in copying or translating sources, misdating events, and his ignorance of geographical, military, and political details he is attempting to record.[6] Historians have noted in particular Livy’s poor handling of his sources;[7] although he made some attempt to determine which of his conflicting sources were most reliable, his method of doing so was inadequate and his conclusions unreliable.[8]

Discrepancies between Polybius & Livy

Unlike professional historians, Godfrey does not inform readers of the significant discrepancies between the accounts of Polybius and Livy in their description of the Punic Wars. Polybius describes how the first peace treaty between Rome and Carthage was ratified, whereas Livy claims it was rejected; yet forgetting what he said earlier, later in Livy’s history he assumes the treaty was ratified after all.[9] Likewise, the description Livy gives of the Battle of Zama, is ‘bizarrely at odds with Polybius”.[10]

Since Godfrey has pointed to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps as an example of agreement between Polybius and Livy (acknowledging differences between their accounts but claiming  ‘most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal‘), this section of their works will be examined, to see if Godfrey’s claim withstands scrutiny.

Discrepancy 1: encouraging or berating the troops?

At the beginning of their descriptions of Hannibal crossing of the Alps, Polybius claims Hannibal gave a speech encouraging his men ‘by reminding them of their achievements in the past’, whilst Livy claims he ‘called his troops together and harangued them with a mixture of withering scorn and general encouragement’, accusing them of cowardice.

Clare notes that there is a discrepancy between Polybius and Livy as to the timing of the event; ‘in Polybius, Hannibal was trying to encourage his men after the defeat by Scipio’s scouting party; Livy makes it a Hortatio speech before the ascent of the Alps‘. This is a significant discrepancy; it is impossible for both historians to be correct. Clare concludes ‘Given the fact that the army was still only at the Rhone, hundreds of miles from the Alps, one has to question Livy’s account’.

Clare also notes that Livy has written Hannibal’s speech in ‘a form of oration called a Horatio (= Exhortation)’, noting ‘this was a Greek form of oration’. Noting ‘there are other examples in Livy and throughout Greek literature’ of this oratorical form, Clare asks his reader ‘does the fact that this speech follows this form PROVE that Livy made it up?’. Clare’s question is rhetorical, his point being that just because a historical source records a speech in a particular well used literary form, does not mean the speech itself never took place or that the content is fictional; this is how professional historians treat historical accounts which use literary forms.

Discrepancy 2: a prayer to the gods?

Polybius says that after Hannibal’s speech to his troops he offered ‘a prayer to the gods’, but Livy does not mention this. Clare notes ‘This act – a standard example of Virtus Romana – is deliberately omitted by Livy; what different impression to Polybius’s impression of Hannibal was Livy thereby trying to create?’. Typical of Clare’s professional method, discrepancies between Polybius and Livy are not treated as indications that an event did not take place.

When an event is present in one account but not in another, Clare harmonizes the accounts by proposing one of the historians lacked a source available to the other, or that one of the historians deliberately omitted the event for personal reasons. When both historians give differing accounts of the same event, Clare concludes that they are using different, independent sources, rather than concluding that the event did not take place.

Discrepancy 3: where is the Iskaras?

Identifying a geographical location apparently known as ‘the Island’, both Polybius and Livy refer to it as the place where two rivers meet’; the Rhone, and the ‘Iskaras’ (Polybius), or ‘Sara’ (Livy). This is the first of a number of significant geographical discrepancies in the accounts of Polybius and Livy. Clare notes that historians still cannot agree on the identity of this river, and consequently cannot agree on the route taken by Hannibal over the Alps, despite all the details given by Polybius and Livy.

“Firstly, the river given in your set-text as the ‘Isère’ is actually in Polybius ‘Iskaras’ – since the 16th century historians have identified this as the Isère, but the British historian De Beer (1969) did not agree; he identified it as the Aigues (a river MUCH further south). Historians disagree about the route taken by Hannibal over the Alps. The suggestion that Hannibal turned east up the Isère would favour a route which took him over the Col du Mont Cenis or the Col de Clapier. The account in Livy, who states that Hannibal turned east up the Druentia (Durance), would suggest a southerly route over Mount Genèvre or the Col de la Traversette. We will never be sure.”

This is an irreconcilable discrepancy between the geography of the Alps, and the geographical descriptions given by Polybius and Livy; the river is not identifiable with any certainty. Either Hannibal went east up the Isère or east up the Durentia, but it is not possible to be certain and his route over the Alps remains unknown.

Discrepancy 4: mediator or partisan?

Polybius and Livy both describe Hannibal encountering two brothers disputing the leadership of their tribe. Polybius says Hannibal favoured one of them, ad ‘united with him therefore to attack and expel the other’, whereas Livy on the contrary says Hannibal acted as a peaceful arbitrator between the two. Clare concludes the discrepancy is the result of the historians using different sources.

“Although this story is paralleled in Livy, there are significant differences which suggest that Livy did NOT take the story from Polybius.”

“Where Livy says that Hannibal was invited to arbitrate, Polybius just states that he supported the elder brother; another sign that Livy here was following an alternative source to Polybius.”

Discrepancy 5: Allobroges or not?

Livy says the two brothers belonged to the Allobroges, a tribal group in Gaul; Clare notes that Polybius ‘infers the opposite’.

“Where Livy states that the brothers were Allobroges, Polybius does not do so, and rather infers the opposite, since here he has the brother protecting Hannibal against the Allobroges. This shows that Livy did not base his account here on Polybius. Given that the Allobroges later attacked Hannibal, you have to say that Polybous sounds the more convincing account here.”

Again, Clare understands this as an indication of different sources used by Polybius and Livy, rather than dismissing the event as fictional.

Discrepancy 6: allies or enemies?

Clare notes Polybius and Livy differ completely in their description of Hannibal’s experience with the naive tribes during his initial advance through the Alps, and again proposes two alternative sources as the origin of the contradiction.

“Notice, yet again, how Polybius and Livy reverse the role of the Gauls and the Allobroges. Polybius has Hannibal escorted by ‘Barbarians’ safely through the Allobroges; Livy has Hannibal helped by Allobroges and unmolested by ‘the local Gallic inhabitants‘. It shows that Livy was using a different source to Polybius here.”

Discrepancy 7: the enemy slipped away, or the attacks were renewed?

Polybius claims that the day after after an initial attack on Hannibal’s force, the local enemies ‘slipped away’, leaving Hannibal’s army uncontested.

“53.6. The next day the enemy slipped away and Hannibal was able to rejoin the cavalry and the baggage train and lead them to the highest points of the Alpine passes.”

In contrast, Livy says the enemies remained and continued their attacks the next day, though with reduced force; Livy specifically mentions further losses to Hannibal’s army at this time, completely contradicting Polybius.

“35.1. However, on the next day, the barbarian attacks grew less intense and the two parts of his army were reunited. They cleared the pass successfully, but with some losses, mainly of baggage animals rather than soldiers. 35.2. The numbers of tribesmen was now considerably reduced, though their attacks continued, sometimes on the vanguard, sometimes on the rear.”

It is not possible for both of these descriptions to be correct; either the enemy ‘slipped away’ the next day, or they continued to attack the next day and Hannibal’s army sustained further losses.

Discrepancy 8: the sight of Italy?

Polybius and Livy both claim that after nine days of travel Hannibal came to a vantage point from which he could look down on Italy, and encouraged his troops with their close proximity to their goal.

“54.2. So he called them all together and tried to boost their morale. He had only one source of encouragement, and that was the sight of Italy, clearly spread out below. It lies so close up under these mountains that anyone gazing on both together would imagine that the Alps towered above Italy like an acropolis above its city.” (Polybius)

“35.8. Fully aware of this, Hannibal rode out ahead and found a vantage point with a panoramic view across the whole landscape below. Here he ordered the army to halt and pointed out to them the view of Italy and the plains of the Po valley spread out at the foot of the Alps,” (Livy)

Clare points out that this is completely irreconcilable with the accounts given by Polybius and Livy themselves; it is geographically impossible for Hannibal to have seen such a view if he was in the position they claimed; either he could see the view because he was not in the position they claimed, or they were simply making use of a dramatic story about the event.

 “This is a wonderful story, which both Livy and Polybius tell … the only problem being that such a view exists ONLY on the Mont Cenis or the Col-de-Clapier passes. So either Hannibal used one of those two routes, or both Polybius and Livy were retailing a myth that was just too good not to use!

Discrepancy 9: five months to reach Italy?

Both Polybius and Livy claim Hannibal took five months to reach Italy, fifteen days of which were spent crossing the Alps. However, this is irreconcilable with their clam that Hannibal left Carthage in early spring.

“Polybius and Livy agree on five months (they perhaps took the figure from a primary source – presumably Silenus/Sosylus). But an arrival in early November would imply a departure in June, which contradicts utterly the statement in both Polybius and Livy that Hannibal set off in ‘early spring’ – Livy emphasises ‘right at the beginning of spring’ (i.e. early March in Spain). Yet a departure in early spring would put Hannibal over the Alps in August. There is clearly an error somewhere.”

Here the discrepancy is internal; both Polybius and Livy agree with each other but contradict their own accounts. It is notable that when faced with Polybius and Livy using a figure which contradicts their own accounts  Clare actually suggest the figure was taken from a primary source which neither historian cites, rather than dismissing the figure itself.

Discrepancy 10: fifteen days to cross the Alps?

Both Polybius and Livy say Hannibal took fifteen days to cross the Alps. However, Clare notes that their own accounts of the number of days Hannibal spent in the crossing, add up to 18 or 19; they contradict themselves.

“Amusingly, when you add up the days in both Polybius’s and Livy’s accounts they come to 18 or 19! Both of them appear to have accepted a figure – presumably from Silenus/Sosylus – without checking it!”

Again Clare reconciles the history by treating the figure as accurate and the historians as inaccurate, suggesting the figure of fifteen days is correct and that it derives from a primary source.

Discrepancy 11: how many men?

Livy notes the historical sources available to him are ‘hopelessly at variance’ with regard to how many soldiers Hannibal accompanied Hannibal into Italy.

“38.2 The authorities are hopelessly at variance as to the number of the troops with which Hannibal entered Italy. The highest estimate assigns him 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry; the lowest puts his strength at 20,000 infantry and 6000 cavalry.  38.3 L. Cincius Alimentus tells us that he was taken prisoner by Hannibal, and I should be most inclined to accept his authority if he had not confused the numbers by adding in the Gauls and Ligurians; if these are included there were 80,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry.  38.4 It is, however, more probable that these joined Hannibal in Italy, and some authorities actually assert this.  38.5 Cincius also states that he had heard Hannibal say that subsequently to his passage of the Rhone he lost 36,000 men and a vast number of horse and other animals.”

Livy again contradicts Polybius, and Clare notes Livy has made the wrong choice.

“This section illustrates Livy’s poor handling of numbers. Although he acknowledges the great variation of numbers, he seems to be prepared to accept Cincius’s hearsay, despite being aware of significant problems with his calculations. And although he actually quotes Polybius’s numbers (without crediting him)he utterly ignores the greater authority of Polybius’s source (the column at Lacinium).”

Although Livy claims L. Cincinius Alimentus as a reliable eyewitness source (having been taken prisoner by Hannibal), Clare notes that this is not true; Alimentus was not an eyewitness to these events.

“A Roman annalist from the time of the Second Punic War, who really did spend years as a prisoner of Hannibal, and whose account of that time was praised by Polybius for its lack of bias. HOWEVER, although he was captured early in the war, he was NOT a prisoner when Hannibal crossed the Alps, and was not an eyewitness.”

Discrepancy 12: living off the land?

The accounts Polybius and Livy give of how Hannibal’s army sustained itself once in Italy, are completely contradictory on three points. Firstly, Polybius claims Hannibal’s army gathered plenty of supplies, while Livy claims the opposite.

“Polybius emphasizes the abundance of supplies gathered by the Punic army, but again Livy claims the opposite. He even alleges that Campania was inadequate to support Hannibal’s army, which was therefore threatened with hunger. Most importantly, the Roman troops successfully hindered Hannibal’s food supply.”[11]

Secondly, Polybius and Livy give different accounts of how the Romans responded at this time.

“Quite revealing is the following difference in Polybius’ and Livy’s accounts. While Polybius has Flaminius’ officers advise their commander to hold back and be on his guard against the superior numbers of Hannibal’s cavalry, Livy has the officers tell Flaminius to use his cavalry and light-armed troops to keep the enemy’s forces in check (Pol. 2.82.4; Livy 22.3.9).”[12]

Thirdly, Livy claims Hannibal’s supplies were exhausted by spring, unlike Polybius.

“Finally, Livy claims that in the spring of 216 Hannibal’s stores were exhausted and that he contemplated withdrawing into Gaul (22.23.3). Polybius, who noted that Hannibal’s army had been able to prepare their winter quarters near Gerunium unhindered, says nothing of the sort.”[13]

Professional treatments of the sources

Despite the numerous sources used by Polybius and Livy (some of them primary sources, and eyewitnesses), professional historians are still unable to reconstruct precise details of Hannibal’s journey across the Alps; the sources are too contradictory. Focusing only on twelve of the most glaring discrepancies, from Polybius and Livy we learn the following.

1. Hannibal started by encouraging his troops, or perhaps he started by berating them.

2. He then gave a prayer to the gods, or perhaps he didn’t.

3. A key point of his travel took place at a river with a disputed name, which is geographically unidentifiable.

4. His path through the Alps took him over the Col du Mont Cenis, or perhaps the Col de Clapier, or perhaps Mount Genèvre, or perhaps the Col de la Traversette;  his route is impossible to reconstruct with certainty, and historians still debate it.

5. He acted as mediator to two brothers, or perhaps he fought and defeated one of them as a partisan supporter of the other.

6. He was allied with the Gauls and fought the Allobroges, or perhaps he was allied with the Allobroges and fought with the Gauls.

7. After an initial attack on his forces the enemy slipped away the next day, or perhaps the next day they resumed fighting with reduced intensity but still inflicted further losses.

8. After nine days of travel he came to a vantage point at which he could see all of Italy, or perhaps he didn’t.

9. He arrived in Italy after five months, having started in early spring or perhaps not starting in early spring (or perhaps not taking five months at all).

10. He took 15 days to cross the Alps, or perhaps 18 days, or perhaps 19 days.

11. He arrived in Italy with 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, or 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, or any number in between.

12. When he arrived in Italy his army was able to sustain itself easily by living off the land, or perhaps it wasn’t and it actually ran out of food.

Professional historians address the discrepancies between Polybius and Livy in a variety of ways. Some of those methods involve attributing the contradiction to differing sources, or to an accurate source which both Polybius and Livy cited but did not realise they were contradicting, or to the deliberate suppression of information by one of the historians for their own agenda, or to translation error (typically to Livy mistranslating a Greek source), or to a chronological re-organization of the events for purposes of dramatization.

Occasionally the discrepancies are explained by mismanagement of sources by Polybius or Livy (more commonly the latter), and various mathematical calculations are made in order to maintain the credibility of certain dates and time periods described by Polybius and Livy, whilst reconciling their inconsistencies and contradictions.

Professional historians do not dismiss Livy’s record as inaccurate or unreliable on account of his credulous citation of supernatural events, nor do they dismiss as unhistorical events which are described using common Greek and Roman literary conventions used in fictional works. They seek harmonization where possible, even to the extent of attributing information to primary sources uncited by either Polybius or Livy.


[1] Goldsworthy, ‘The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 254-146 BC’, pp. 157-158 (2004).

[2] Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[3] ‘Meanwhile, for the First Punic War Polybius’ two principal sources were Q. Fabius Pictor (FGrH 809) and Philinus of Agbrigentum (FGrH 174). He found both to be deficient in historical method.’, Muneo, ‘Principal Literary Sources for the Punic Wars (apart from Polybius)’, in Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World (2011).

[4] ‘Polybius also mentions some other Greek sources, many of whom seem to have been pro-Carthaginian. Most such are left unnamed.’, ibid.

[5] Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[6] ‘1. Instead of synthesising all his sources, Livy uses first one, then another, almost fact-for-fact (this theory, is named Nissen’s Law after its inventor, the 19th century German classicist Heinrich Nissen); this methodology leads to all kinds of confusion as Livy repeats events, contradicts himself or, worse, tries to cover up errors he realises he has made earlier. 2. Where he is aware of contradictions in his sources, he often simply gives both; sometimes he says which he prefers, but he seems to use no methodology to evaluate his sources (as Polybius did) – he simply chooses the figure in the middle, or chooses the figure which suits his biases.  3. He seems to have failed to take account of the biases in the sources he was using – e.g. when criticising or praising Roman generals. 4. Carelessness in copying sources – historians have found evidence of mis-copying and mistranslations. He frequently gets dates wrong. 5. ‘Blind patriotism’ towards the Romans, and biases for (e.g. the Scipio family) and against (e.g. the Claudians) certain noble families … which sometimes leads him to distort or blatantly falsify the truth. 6. He often gets his geography wrong … which again sometimes leads to whole stories being repeated. 7. He was woefully ignorant in military matters, yet sometimes chose to contradict Polybius! He tried to simplify battles for his general audience, but made mistakes in doing so because he did not fully understand what was going on. Most of his battles simply recount an orthodox clash of infantry centre and cavalry wings and are describe in traditional/formulaic terms of shouting and slaughter … which Livy then livens up with peripheral details and anecdotes. 8. He had no experience of politics, so ‘the Senate’ occasionally turns up in a stereotyped manner to decide this or enact that, and ‘the People’ react in predictable ways to events; you get no satisfactory analysis of the workings of public opinion or politics from Livy.’, Clare, ‘Hannibal_Livy.doc‘.

[7] ‘Apart from the rare outburst such as 2.21.3-4,  6.1.1-3, and 8.40 where the historian seems to call into question the overall framework and evidentiary basis of Roman history, Livy invariably accepts rather uncritically the fictitiously detailed narratives of his sources, and erects his own probabilistic conclusions upon their unstable foundations.’, Forsythe, ‘Livy and Early Rome: A Study in Historical Method and Judgment’, Historia Einzelschriften 132, pp. 53-54 (1999).

[8] ‘A careful examination of the relevant data clearly demonstrates that Livy’s use of historical probability is in general quite inadequate for the difficult task of critically analyzing the historical traditions of early Rome. On the few occasions on which it is correctly employed, it never goes beyond the application of common sense. Far more frequently, however, Livy erects his conclusions upon dubious premises.’, ibid., pp. 53-54.

[9] ‘Reporting how Scipio Africanus’ first peace treaty with Carthage, in 203, was received by the Senate at Rome, Livy supplies participants with plenty of oratory while insisting that the treaty was rejected, a striking contrast to Polybius’ evidence of ratification – which Livy himself soon afterwards assumes to have happened.’, Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[10] ‘His account of the climactic battle of Zama, in turn, is bizarrely at odds with Polybius’ which he seems not to understand fully (a Livian hazard also found elsewhere in his work); though it is not as bizarre as that of Appian, who like the epic poet Silius was determined to insert a hand-to-hand joust between the two great generals.’, ibid., p. 2.

[11] Erdkamp, Manpower and Food Supply in the First and Second Punic Wars’, in Hoyos, ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World (2011).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

Godfrey on Nazareth: defending Rene Salm against the archaeologists

March 3, 2013 33 comments

Skeptical blogger Tim O’Neill has criticized claims by piano teacher Rene Salm that the town of Nazareth did not exist at the time when Jesus is typically understood to have lived. In turn, Neil Godfrey (I previously wrote ‘librarian Neil Godfrey’, but Neil objected to this), has described O’Neill’s criticism as ‘ignorant anti-rationalist nonsense‘, and written a response to O’Neill. This article examines Godfrey’s response to O’Neill.

The literature under discussion

In 2007 the article ‘Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report‘ was published in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society by Stephen Pfann, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano. This article is also known as the ‘Nazarath Village Farm Report’. In 2008 the Bulletin published Rene Salm’s ‘A Response to ‘Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report’, which criticized the report of Pfann, Voss, and Rapuano.

Salm’s article was accompanied by the article ‘Nazareth Village Farm: A Reply to Salm’ by Ken Dark, ‘On the Nazareth Village Farm Report: A Reply to Salm’ by Pfann and Rapuano, and a review by Ken Dark of Salm’s book ‘The Myth ofNazareth. The Invented Town of Jesus. Scholar’s Edition’ (2008). Also published in the same edition of the Bulletin was ‘The Nazareth Village Farm Project Pottery (1997–2002): Amendment’, by Rapuano, in which he re-presented the diagrams in the original article, correcting three cases in which diagrams had been misnumbered in the original article. However, Rapuano did not withdraw or alter any of the conclusions he had made in the original report.

Godfrey’s claims: “the very worst practices found among the most culpable of researchers”

Godfrey’s response to O’Neill opens with this claim.

What Tim O’Neill has done in his attacks on René Salm earlier this year over his claims that there was no village of Nazareth at the time of Jesus is defend the very worst practices found among the most culpable of researchers.

On what basis does Godfrey make this claim? In his criticism of Salm, O’Neill makes the following statement.

Okay, then let’s actually look at the evidence of archaeologists, then consider the armchair objections of the piano teacher from Oregon named Rene Salm and let objective sceptics decide who is more likely to be correct.

It is O’Neill’s view that professional archaeologists are more likely to be correct in their assessment of archaeological evidence, than a piano teacher.In his criticism of O’Neill, Godfrey mischaracterizes this as “defending the right of academics to make pronouncements of breakthroughs and new discoveries and then say, “Nope, you can’t examine all the details of the data for yourself. I’m a professional! How dare you question my judgements!”“. In fact O’Neill never says anything like this.

Godfrey’s claims: “Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist”

Godfrey claims that only one of the authors of the Nazareth Village Farm report “is a trained archaeologist”.

The Nazareth Village Farm report was the work of three persons. Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist who, however, customarily works in Judea far to the south.

There is only one archaeologist (Rapuano) whose evidence Salm questions. Later O’Neill will refer to all three authors of the report as “three qualified archaeologists” — unaware, it seems, that only one of the authors has qualifications in archaeology!

One of the authors, Ross Voss, is an archaeologist with “Thirty eight years of archaeological excavation experience“. The other author is Stephen Pfann, whose academic title is “Researcher/Archaeologist University of the Holy Land“. When presented with these facts, Godfrey explained what he had meant.

I made it very clear that there are three archaeologists who wrote the report but that only one of these has formal qualifications in archaeology. The other two are not qualified. They have experience, yes, but not qualifications.

This is not what Godfrey said originally. His original claim was that the article was authored by “three persons”, not “three archaeologists”, and he originally said “Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist”, not “only one of these has formal qualifications in archaeology”.

Godfrey further claimed that the experience of the other two authors did not qualify them as archaeologists, and described them as “Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true“.

That is exactly the point being addressed by Salm in his SBL paper, isn’t it. Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true and calling themselves archaeologists because they do it all the time — “field experience”. That’s yours and O’Neill’s definition of “qualified archaeologists”???? You are a bunch of clowns!

Godfrey was asked the following questions.

* Could I be clear however on the fact that you are now saying you believe all three authors are archaeologists?

* On what basis did you make your claim that they are not qualified simply because they ‘have experience, yes, but not qualifications’?

Can you provide any evidence that the scholarly community considers either Pfann or Voss to be ‘unqualified’? Do you consider them insufficiently qualified to comment and publish on the subject? If so, please provide your evidence.

Godfrey did not answer. He was also asked these questions.

Does the scholarly community only accept as qualified, those with formal qualifications in archaeology? Does the scholarly community not accept as qualified, those with no formal qualifications in archaeology but decades of field experience, and/or formal teaching positions in the field?

Again Godfrey did not answer, nor did he provide any evidence for his claim that Pfann and Ross are “Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true”.

Godfrey’s claims: “he only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote”

Godfrey writes (O’Neill’s quoted words in italics):

O’Neill then demonstrates that, though he only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote, he does not know the basic facts at the heart of the debates.

I recalled that [Salm] had actually accepted the dating of some of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth and of the recently excavated house there. I was wrong – Salm is much more intransigent than that.

In this quotation from O’Neill, he does not say or demonstrate that he “only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote”; he corrects a previous recollection he had. Nor does this statement demonstrate that O’Neill “does not know the basic facts at the heart of the debates”.

Godfrey then claims O’Neill has misunderstood the site of the Nazareth Farm.

He says here that the recently excavated house (of Jesus’ time!) was “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth. And this is from one who is trying to make fun of someone he wants to portray as “an armchair hobbyist”. A simple web search will inform O’Neill that that house is not “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at all. Look on Google maps to see for yourself. For convenience, here is a snapshot from Google Maps where I have pinpointed the approximate areas of the sites under discussion. (Go to “32°42’04.28″ N 35°17’33.78″ E” in Google Maps to explore the area yourself.)  O’Neill has confused the NVF (where no house was excavated) with Yardena Alexandre’s excavation in the immediate area of the Church of the Annunciation.

But O’Neill said no such thing. He said “I recalled that had actually accepted the dating of some of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth and of the recently excavated house there‘” To what does “there” refer? It refers to Nazareth, which is precisely where the recently excavated “Jesus-era house” is located, near the Church of the Annunciation.

Godfrey’s claims: “fabricated fancy”

O’Neill made the observation that “Reading Salm on this subject reminds me of the days, many years ago, when I actually used to bother reading Creationist material so I could debate Creationists”.

Salm’s book, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus, bears many similarities to Creationist classics like Duane Gish’s Evolution? The Fossils Say No!. You have an amateur with no training in the relevant field. You have them desperately trying to critique published work by actual specialists and experts and nitpick at it to find reasons for doubt. You have triumphant leaping on the smallest error (eg a mislabeled diagram) as evidence of incompetence if not outright fraud. You have an assumption that the experts secretly know they are wrong and are trying to deceive laypeople for nefarious reasons. And you have a driving ideological bias motivating all of the above, but masquerading as objective critical analysis for the public good. The resemblance is uncanny.

Godfrey responded that “O’Neill’s assertion that Salm’s book has an uncanny resemblance to creationist literature is fabricated fancy. It is a falsehood”, making the following critique of O’Neill’s assertion.

Creationists dispute the interpretation of all the scientists and the science itself. Salm in fact is quoting the archaeological reports and defending published scholarly findings against popular press releases that have overtaken the imaginations of the likes of even Bart Ehrman. Creationists do not publish in scientific journals and prompt amendments to scientific reports. Salm has done exactly that. Salm is not disputing the science or the findings. He is, in fact, sifting the actual data reported and evaluating it against incautious claims and conclusions and pointing to the self-confessed religious and financial biases of some of those responsible for the archaeological reports and popular press releases. He is holding religiously motivated scholars to account for making announcements that go way beyond the actual data published in their reports.

Godfrey’s response here does not address any of the points O’Neill actually raised. Instead of addressing the points of similarity between Creationists and Salm identified by O’Neill, Godfrey lists a series of points of difference. But O’Neill never disputed these points of difference; he identified points of similarity, points which Godfrey never addresses. Here are the similarities O’Neill raised.

1. “You have an amateur with no training in the relevant field.”
2. “You have them desperately trying to critique published work by actual specialists and experts and nitpick at it to find reasons for doubt.”
3. “You have triumphant leaping on the smallest error (eg a mislabeled diagram) as evidence of incompetence if not outright fraud.”
4. “You have an assumption that the experts secretly know they are wrong and are trying to deceive laypeople for nefarious reasons.”
5. “And you have a driving ideological bias motivating all of the above, but masquerading as objective critical analysis for the public good.”

Godfrey did not address any of these five points raised by O’Neill. This fact was pointed out to Godfrey in discussion; he did not respond.

Godfrey’s claims: “Tim’s mind”

Godfrey quotes the following statement from O’Neill.

Rapuano expresses himself with the usual caution required of a professional archaeologist, while at the same time giving his trained assessment of their dating provenance.

Godfrey then claims to know that O’Neill actually meant something completely different to what he wrote.

This translates in Tim’s mind into:

When Rapuano says a fragment “could possibly” be from the Hellenistic or early Roman eras, then unless you treat the Hellenistic to early Roman periods as an established fact for that fragment you are being “ludicrous”.

Godfrey’s claim to know O’Neill’s mind in this way is unpersuasive, especially unaccompanied by any evidence. In reality, O’Neill never makes any such statement, or any statement like it.

Godfrey’s claims: “he has had to depart from the standard reference”

Godfrey represents Salm’s argument thus.

What Salm argues is that where Rapuano provides external support for his assessment the fragments can as well be dated to after 70 CE (the fall of Jerusalem) as before it.

He then claims Rapuano “attempted to correct that deficiency in his Amended report subsequently”.

Rapuano clearly did not dismiss this criticism as easily as O’Neill did, since he attempted to correct that deficiency in his Amended report subsequently. New parallel comparisons are introduced to support some of the claims, but to do so he has had to depart from the standard reference, Adan Bayewitz, for Galilean pottery dating and resort to less relevant (often quite different) Jericho and Judean sources. He has also turned to Fernandez who, Salm shows in his book, consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale. Tim O’Neill does not question any of this. Rapuano has spoken: pottery “may be”, “could be” Hellenistic or Early Roman (compare Fernandez!), so O’Neill throws all caution to the wind and demands we all accept on authority of one scholar that it is Hellenistic or Early Roman.

There are several problems with this paragraph of Godfrey’s. Firstly, Godfrey provides no evidence that any such “deficiency” actually existed, still less that Rapuano “attempted to correct” it; no evidence is provided for Salm’s assertion. Secondly, Godfrey provides no evidence for the claim that in introducing “New parallel comparisons” Rapuano had to “depart from the standard reference, Adan Bayewitz, for Galilean pottery dating” or that Rapuano had to “resort to less relevant (often quite different) Jericho and Judean sources”.

Thirdly, Godfrey repeats (without substantiation), Salm’s claim that Fernandez (a source cited by Rapuano), “consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale”.  Although Godfrey gives the impression Rapauno is relying significantly on Fernandez, in fact Rapuano only cites Fernandez with regard to ten artefacts out of a total of 77,[1] and only on five of those occasions is Fernandez the only source cited.[2]

Six out of the ten date ranges cited from Fernandez start within the first century,[3] but in only three of those cases does Fernandez give a date range which ends inside the first century.[4] On two occasions the date range given by Fernandez is within the same range given by another source,[5] [6] and on one occasion the date range given by Fernandez is later than the date given by another source.[7] There is certainly no evidence here that Fernandez “consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale”.

Finally, Godfrey provides no evidence for his claim that O’Neill “O’Neill throws all caution to the wind and demands we all accept on authority of one scholar that it is Hellenistic or Early Roman”. O’Neill never says any such thing, or anything like it.

Godfrey’s claims: “a misreading of much of Salm’s original article”

Godfrey objects to Ken Dark’s review of Salm’s critique of the Nazareth Farm Report as ‘a misreading of much of Salm’s original article’, but does not provide evidence for this claim. He represents Dark as saying “Now it’s your job to ignore those words of caution and defer to his other words as dogma! And no, you can’t examine the evidence more closely for yourself”, but does not provide any evidence for this either. Dark does not actually say any such thing.

Godfrey’s claims: “absence of evidence is evidence”

Returning to O’Neill’s response, Godfrey makes the following claim.

O’Neill then repeats Bart Ehrman’s argument that absence of evidence is evidence that there were poor people burying their dead in shallow graves. (He makes up an imaginative scenario to account for this — a very poor city gradually grew richer and richer till there were rich people’s tombs there.)

O’Neill did not argue that “absence of evidence is evidence that there were poor people burying their dead in shallow graves”. What O’Neill says is this.

As I note above, settlements established enough to sustain families who can have rock-cut kokhim built for them don’t pop up out of nothing. They grow from smaller, poorer, earlier settlements. So the kokhim on their own imply a smaller, poorer, earlier settlement on the site. And that’s precisely what the other archaeological evidence from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods indicate, both by their nature (low status items, roughly made), their distribution and their number. We know there was a larger, richer town there later, the evidence indicates that clearly too.

This is not an argument based on the absence of evidence, it is an argument based on evidence, specifically “rock-cut kokhim” (a tomb cut out of the rock). O’Neill’s argument is that the presence of these tombs is evidence that there were families wealthy enough to sustain them. Additionally he points out that such wealthy families “don’t pop up out of nothing”, but are the result of “smaller, poorer, earlier settlements” developing. He does not basis this on the absence of evidence either, but states specifically “that’s precisely what the other archaeological evidence from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods indicate”. O’Neill’s argument is based firmly on the archaeological record.

Godfrey’s claims: “Presumably O’Neill concludes”

Godfrey makes another assertion about O’Neill’s argument, without actually quoting O’Neill.

O’Neill then claims that the abundance of springs in the region is evidence that it must have been settled. People would loved to have set up home around springs. Presumably O’Neill concludes that every spring in the Levant was the site of a village for 2000 years before Christ.

Turning to what O’Neill actually wrote, we find that it is not what Godfrey claimed.

Zvi Gal’s Lower Galilee in the Iron Age (Eisenbrauns, 1992) notes that the site would have been attractive precisely because of its abundance of springs:The area around the city (of Nazareth) consists of limestone formation. There are several springs within this small Nazareth valley. The topography of the area and the fact it has many surrounding springs, proves that it was occupied during ancient periods.(Z. Gal, p. 15)

It can be seen that O’Neill does not present an argument he has made himself. On the contrary, he quotes archaeologist Zvi Gal saying “The topography of the area and the fact it has many surrounding springs, proves that it was occupied during ancient periods”. Godfrey’s claim that “Presumably O’Neill concludes that every spring in the Levant was the site of a village for 2000 years before Christ” is completely baseless; O’Neill never said anything like this.

Godfrey’s claims: “O’Neill uncritically parrots”

Godfrey misrepresents O’Neill again in his next paragraph.

Finally, O’Neill uncritically parrots the popular press reports of Yardenna Alexandre claiming that archaeologists have uncovered tombs in Nazareth from the time of Jesus. He needs to read a bit more widely, including Salm’s book (that he claims to have read). He would know of a work that has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit by Hans-Peter Kuhnen. He would know (does Alexandre know?) the persuasive evidence that the kokh tombs in question here almost certainly did not appear in Galilee as early as they did in Jerusalem.

Leaving aside the fact that O’Neill was not actually parroting a news report (he did not quote from any news report at all, but from a report by the Israeli Antiquities Authority), Godfrey does not say why he uses the phrase “uncritically parrots” to describe O’Neill citing an event which has actually taken place; the popular press did report what Yardenna Alexandre said. Citing an event which has actually taken place by referring to news reports which describe the event taking place, is not uncritical parroting; it is simply mentioning an event which has happened, and citing the source which reported the event happening.

The news report to which Godfrey linked opens with the words “Archaeologists in Israel say they have discovered the remains of a home from the time of Jesus in the heart of Nazareth”, and contains a statement from Yardenne Alexandre saying “Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth; however, no settlement remains have been discovered that are attributed to this period”.

In criticism of Alexandre’s statement, Godfrey cites what he claims is “a work that has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit by Hans-Peter Kuhnen“. This work is actually a volume in the series Vorderasien (‘Western Asia”); the title translated into English is “Palestine in Greek and Roman Times”. It is also entirely in German.

It is unclear whether or not Godfrey has ever actually read this work, or whether or not he can even read German. He provides no evidence for his claim that this work “has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years”, nor does he provide any evidence for what he says is “the persuasive evidence that the kokh tombs in question here almost certainly did not appear in Galilee as early as they did in Jerusalem”. Although he implies such evidence is in the German book he cites, he is not explicit on this point.

Although he seems to want to give the impression that “Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit” contains “persuasive evidence” that the tombs did not appear in Galilee as early as in Jerusalem, and that this has become an influential position, he does not actually explain precisely what he does mean, nor does he present any evidence for his statements. It is possible he has borrowed information from another source which he does not identify, and either cited it uncritically without verification, or used it to make an argument of his own. He certainly does not present any evidence that this book published in 1990 disproves Alexandre’s statement that “Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth”.

Godfrey’s claims: “How it works”

At the end of his article Godfrey claims ” the authors of the Nazareth Farm Report do not yield sufficient information for anyone to assess their conclusions critically”. He presents no evidence for this claim. He also says “to say someone is a lunatic for not deferring to the authority of a researcher until that researcher makes the evidence available for checking is simply trying to intimidate and shut down questioning through intellectual bullying”, but never identifies anyone who has actually ever said such a thing.

Godfrey concludes thus.

Oh yes, there are about ten pottery fragments that Rapuano’s amended report that to the time of “Jesus” (Hellenistic to first century CE). Salm points out that Rapuano uses early, inapplicable Judean parallels for these. No doubt when Rapuano publishes a more detailed book explaining the data in detail people who like to understand the evidence (who are not satisfied simply to defer to academic authority without any thought that they should demonstrate accountability) will be keen to study the details of these ten fragments.

Godfrey gives the impression that it was only in Rapuano’s “amended report” that he cited any pottery fragments dating to “the time of “Jesus””. However, the original Nazareth Farm Report says clearly that in Area A-2 “many potsherds with the typical ribbing of the Early to Late Roman Period were found” (page 28). Salm made note of this in his reply (page 97), specifically because he wished to challenge the Early Roman Period dating (which overlaps with the time of Jesus).

Godfrey has overlooked Salm’s own count of eleven fragments in the original Nazareth Farm Report which are presented as dating to the time of Jesus; “the totality of the NVFR evidence for a pre-70CE Nazareth rests on eleven small pottery sherds” (page 101). If Godfrey had read Rapuano’s amendment (I asked him if he had read it, but he did not reply), he would have seen Raupano “explaining the data in detail”, just as he requires.


[1] Once on pages 114, 116, twice on page 118, once on pages 120 and 121, three times on 122, once on page 123.

[2] Once on pages 118, 120, 121, twice on page 122.

[3] Pages 114, 116, 118, 120, 121, 122.

[4] Pages 114, 120, 121.

[5] “Diez-Fernandez T 1.3 dated 45 BCE – 48 CE; Stepanski Romana 2002: 112, Fig. 7:11, dated mid 1st cent. BCE to mid 1st cent. CE”, page 114.

[6] “Meyers, Kraabel and Strange 1976: 220-222, jars Form T1 Pl. 7.20:15, dated 3rd cent. to early 5th cent. CE; Diez-Fernandez 1985, T 1.7:77 dated 212-240 CE”, page 118.

[7] “possibly Stepanski Romana 2002:111, Fig. 6:16, dated end of 1st cent. to mid first 3rd. cent. CE, possibly Meyers Kraabel and Strange 1976: 205-207, Fig. 18, 4th-early 5th; Diez-Fernandez 1985, T.21.3 (175-300 CE)”, page 123.

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (9)

This post continues from the original post in this series.

Carrier defends Murdock on the canon

In his book (p. 24), Ehrman made the following response to a claim by DM Murdock (writing under the pseudonym ‘Archarya S’), concerning the canon of the New Testament (Murdock’s claim is in quotation marks, “” and Ehrman’s comments follow in square brackets, []):

Bart Ehrman: ―”It took well over a thousand years to canonize the New Testament,” and ―”many councils” were needed to differentiate the inspired from the spurious books (31). [Actually, the first author to list our canon of the New Testament was the church father Athanasius in the year 367; the comment about ―many councils‖ is simply made up.]

Carrier objected to Ehrman’s statement, charging him with error:

Richard Carrier: (1) Ehrman’s statement that there weren’t “many councils” to decide the NT canon is, read literally, false. There were in fact several councils ruling on the canon, and indeed the canon was never truly settled until the 16th century. Someone who tutored under Metzger, who extensively documented these facts, should know that. I can only assume he meant to say that the canon proposed by Athanasius in 367 (in a letter, not a council ruling) was repeatedly affirmed by every subsequent council convened to decide on the canon (although the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it). Acharya’s own characterization of the matter might also be accused of being misleading. But Ehrman’s wording is going to seriously mislead and misinform the public even more, not only as to the actual history of the canon, but also as to Acharya’s knowledge of the facts.

Carrier’s claim that ‘the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it’ is a non sequitur; the conclusion does not follow logically from the premise. He fails to take into account the fact that church councils often re-affirmed the decisions of previous councils regardless of whether the points affirmed were under challenge. He provides no evidence for his claim, and the facts are to the contrary.

When challenged on this point by a respondent on his blog, Carrier gave a response including the the following claim:

Richard Carrier: Your facts also don’t quite agree with what is stated in Metzger’s Formation of the New Testament Canon. You might want to do more homework on this.

This response appears authoritative on the surface, but on closer inspection it is transparently a bluff. Carrier makes a vague reference to Metzger (a recognized scholar on the history of the New Testament text), but fails to actually address any of the points raised by the respondent, and does not cite or quote any specific statements by Metzger relevant to the point under discussion. The reality is that Carrier has no answer to the challenge raised by his respondent, and is hoping that a casual reference to Metzger will convince them that they are wrong. This attempt at evasion is not the response of someone confident in a knowledge of the facts.

Additionally, Carrier’s reference to the work ‘Formation of the New Testament Canon’ is problematic, since he attributes this work to Metzger. There is a book entitled ‘The Formation of the New Testament Canon: an ecumenical approach’ (1983), by Farmer and Farkasfalvy, and another book by entitled ‘Formation of the New Testament Canon’ (1965), by Robert Grant, but Metzger did not make any contributions to either book. Carrier did not provide any details which would help identify specifically the work to which he was referring.

Metzger’s own work on the formation of the New Testament canon is entitled ‘The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance’ (1997), and when we examine what Metzger actually says in that book, we find nothing supportive of Carrier’s claims. Metzger does not say that numerous councils were held to decide on the canon. On the contrary, he notes that the canon suggested by Athanasius was promoted by Augustine in three provincial synods, all of which re-affirmed the canon of Athanasius.

Bruce Metzger: It was Augustine who, in three provincial synods, cast his weight for the twenty-seven books which we know as the Christian Scriptures. These synods were held, one of them in Hippo in A.D. 393, one in Carthage in 397, and the last of them again in Carthage in 419. The opening words of the statute on the canon are straightforward and forthright: ‘Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of the divine Scriptures.’ Then there follows an enumeration of the canonical Scriptures. The order of the New Testament books is Gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, James, Jude, the Revelation of John. The only difference to be noted in the reiteration of the statute is that, in the synods of 393 and 397, the phrase runs, ‘Thirteen Epistles of Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, by the same’, whereas the statute of 419 reads, ‘Fourteen Epistles of Paul’. (See Appendix IV. 12 below.)

Twenty-seven books, no more, and no less, is henceforth the watchword throughout the Latin Church.

None of the councils cited here by Metzger were held to determine the canon, they simply re-affirmed the canon as they addressed other issues. The 393 CE synod of Hippo was a general annual synod, the 397 CE synod of Carthage was a general synod addressing issues from the transfer of clerics between churches to the reconciliation of repentant actors (it states explicitly that it is simply confirming the canon already received), and the 419 CE synod of Carthage was held specifically to address appeals to Rome.

Metztger notes that this did not settle the issue of the canon once and for all in every Christian community, and does note that differences over the canon continued to be raised occasionally.

Bruce Metzger: Yet it would be a mistake to represent the question of the canon as finally settled in all Christian communities by the beginning of the fifth century.

Bruce Metzger: Thus, despite the influence of Jerome and Augustine and the pronouncements of three provincial synods, more than once in the following centuries we come upon evidence of divergences in the canon, either by way of addition or subtraction.

Nevertheless, Metzger provides no support for Carrier’s defense of Murdock’s claim that there were ‘many councils’ held to decide the New Testament canon.