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Hello all; Dave Muscato here. In my post today, I will review David Fitzgerald’s 2010 book Nailed. This book was voted one of the Top 5 Atheist/Agnostic Books of 2010 (Atheism.About.com’s Readers’ Choice Awards), and I think it the honor is well-deserved, as we’ll see below.
I’ve heard about the mythicist case before, but admit that I was too skeptical to take it seriously. After reading this book, I realized I was, in fact, not being skeptical enough.
I didn’t read this book the way I read most books. Right off the bat, I realized that, in order to fact-check properly, I would need to pull out my “big guns” – my 5-volume encyclopedia of the Bible, my copies of Tacitus, Suetonius, Seneca, et al (it helps that I’m minoring in Latin), my Greek NT, my Oxford Essential Guide to People & Places of the Bible (ed. Bruce Metzger), my Cities of the Biblical World (DeVries), and so on. I’ve studied many of the Latin source works Fitzgerald talks about before, and he’s absolutely right that in most cases, these writers were either talking about Christians, not Jesus himself, or that the mentions of Jesus were interpolations (forgeries added into the text by later Christians); that there was definitely more than one Jewish guy named Yeshua walking around back then, and in many cases these writers were writing about other people with the same name; and finally, that literally all of the writers that Christian apologists prop up as credible witnesses were, in fact, born AFTER Jesus died – some decades, some a century or two more. There is a graphic on page 32 of the book, a timeline of alleged “eyewitnesses,” that makes this abundantly clear, and as I mentioned to Dave over Facebook message, that graphic alone makes the book worth the price of admission.
The book has the following format: It explores 10 different reasons the Christians (or for that matter, any non-mythicist) offers for belief in a historical Jesus, in ten sequential chapters, followed by a thorough conclusion, appendix of apologist sources, and finally endnotes, the bibliography, acknowledgments, and an about-the-author. The 10 myths are:
Myth #1: “The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!”
Myth #2: “Jesus was wildly famous – but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him…”
Myth #3: “Ancient historian Josephus wrote about Jesus”
Myth #4: “Eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels”
Myth #5: “The Gospels give a consistent picture of Jesus”
Myth #6: “History confirms the Gospels”
Myth #7: “Archaeology confirms the Gospels”
Myth #8: “Paul and the Epistles corroborate the Gospels”
Myth #9: “Christianity began with Jesus and his apostles”
Myth #10: “Christianity was totally new and different miraculous overnight success that changed the world”
The book is 215 pages, not including the bibliography/endnotes, etc.
Myth #1 is, in theory, an easy one: It is a textbook logical fallacy, an argumentum ad ridiculum. Simply calling an idea ridiculous is not a logical refutation. You either have to demonstrate that the content of one or more of the premises of the argument contains factual errors, or that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises – or both – in order to say that a conclusion is wrong.
Much of this information was not new to me. In fact, a lot of this book covers the same questions that led me to lose my faith in Christianity in the first place. In his dedication, Fitzgerald offers this book to “everyone who ever thought to themselves: ‘I wonder what Jesus was really like?'” This is a very important question to me personally, the very one that led me to my interest in classical Latin, and to read the Bible for the first time. Let’s dig in.
My primary issue with this book is actually not one of its conclusion nor its scholarship. My real concern is that it’s too short. By that I mean, I was not emotionally ready for the conclusion. I don’t mean that Fitzgerald omitted anything important, nor did he fail to be thorough enough in his research, but simply that the idea that there was no historical Jesus is too foundation-shaking, too upsetting to my emotional brain (as opposed to my rational brain, I mean), that I was not ready for it within the time it took me to read the book the first time, and, at first, I rejected the conclusion on account of cognitive dissonance. Despite studying these things for years on my own and being well-aware of the accuracy of his research, I just refused to believe it. It took time for me let the very idea into my head as a possibility, and as a result, I have spent the last 3 days solid reading source material and fact-checking, including about 6 straight hours at Ellis Library looking up stuff in their absolutely breathtaking 7-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (as an aside, I really, really, really want my own copy of that, but it’s $995 – ouch), because it just feels “wrong” to say that there was no historical Jesus. My skeptical mind kept saying, “But there has to be real evidence that Jesus existed.” Then something hit me: I realized I was being illogical; I was skeptical of the wrong side of the argument: The burden of proof for the existence of Jesus rests, of course, with those making the positive claim. Instead of approaching this argument by saying to myself, “Show me the evidence that Jesus did not exist,” I started thinking, “Show me the evidence that he did.” This was extremely eye-opening for me, and thankfully, completely logical, which was somewhat of a comfort in my dissonance.
I am still not willing to say that I believe positively there was no historical Jesus, but I am willing to say this: In my opinion, the evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus is too unreliable, too contradictory, and too far removed chronologically to pass the “burden of proof” test. Consequently, I have removed Jesus from the “People I believe really existed, though I don’t believe the supernatural claims in his biography” category to the “People for whom I consider the evidence for his existence to be inconclusive, and if he existed, I also don’t believe the supernatural claims in his biography” category. Others in this category are, for example, Odysseus, Achilles, and Homer.
I think that if I did not have the background I do from school in the works of Roman writers, I would not have been as willing to let go of my belief that Jesus was definitely a real person. Because I already knew, for example, that Josephus’ Testimonium was a forgery, that Mary as a literal virgin (virgo, virginis from Koine Greek παρθένος) was a mistranslation of the Hebrew עלמה (young woman/maiden) in Isaiah 7, etc, I was more ready to hear what Fitzgerald had to say. It seems that most people, Christians especially, simply assume there must be really good evidence for the existence of Jesus, even if they’ve never bothered to look into it personally. I have looked into it personally, and insofar as you’re willing to take my word for it, I’m telling you, it’s just not there. There are zero – ZERO – records from Jesus’ lifetime mentioning him whatsoever, or even from 10 or 15 years after his lifetime. The period was extremely well-documented and much material survives to the present from the geography where these events are alleged to have taken place. Writers of the time, if the stories were true, would have had plenty to say about him, and would have had plenty of motivation to write about him. But they didn’t write about him. Not a lick. Normally I would not agree that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence,” but in this specific case, considering that dozens of prolific writers had abundant means, motive, and opportunity to write SOMETHING about the guy – if he were real – but didn’t do so, tells us something. It also tells us something that we have many detailed writings of many other cult religions of the same era and geographic location, many about cult religions even smaller than Christianity was alleged to be at the time, but for some reason, we don’t have anything about Jesus or his followers until much, much later. And the earliest writer we do have – Paul, writing in the 50s or so – says such wildly different things about him that he can scarcely be said to be talking about the same person. Where is the virgin birth, Herod’s massacre, the flight to Egpyt, Jesus’ baptism, the feeding of the multitudes, Mary Magdalene, raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, the transfiguration, Jesus’ “triumphant” entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple, the Last Supper, the Mount of Olives/the betrayal from Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ ordeal with Caiaphas, Jesus’ trial before Pilate, the crown of thorns, carrying the cross, the earthquake the ripped the Temple curtain in half from top to bottom, the Jewish saints coming out of the graves and into the city, the lightning and darkening of the sky, etc? If these are real events and Paul was writing about Jesus very, very shortly after he lived, why doesn’t Paul know anything about any of it? Maybe because the Gospel writers (who were, of course, not really Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John anyway) made it all up?
I feel so much like I feel when I first stopped believing in Christianity and became an atheist. When I was a Christian, I believed what pastors said about who Jesus was and what he taught. When I decided to read the Bible cover-to-cover for myself, I realized that much of what they were saying was incorrect, even just internally, using the Bible as a reference. But what really made me stop believing that Jesus was the Messiah was when I started learning about where the Gospels came from historically. The more I read, the more I looked into it, the more obvious it became that I should not trust them as historically-reliable sources. The 4 canonical gospels were not written by eyewitnesses (in the case of Luke, explicitly so) or even by people within the same generation as eyewitnesses , and no credible modern scholar believes that they were. At least 6 of the Pauline epistles are forgeries, etc. The truth is, the NT was written generations later, by educated, literate Christians (whom the apostles definitely were NOT), living in a community of Christians, who had never met Jesus, writing in a totally different language, and from a different geographic area. They are simply not reliable as primary source documents when it comes to verbatim quotations, and they so disagree with each other in details of the chronology, locations, details of events, and other content that there is just no way they were written by people who were really there – and that’s the parts that WEREN’T simply ripped off from one another. This part, I knew already, though Fitzgerald puts it best, when talking about extrabiblical writers on page 62:
It is sobering to realize that in all of recorded history, for the first century the closest we have to historical support for the Gospels’ picture of Christ are an outright forgery [Josephus’ Testimonium], and a single disputed line that in all likelihood refers to someone else entirely… they are quite literally all there is [emphasis in original] to historically support the Bible’s account of Jesus in the first century. Yet how can this be? Jesus was supposed to have been bigger than the Beatles, single-handedly capturing the attention of all Judea and Galilee, and as far afield as Syria and the Decapolis. The gospels claim his teachings enraptured multitudes and outraged the establishment… if nothing else his (allegedly) controversial, (allegedly) new teachings alone should have left an impact in the historical record.
I think the truth about Myths 4 & 5 are common knowledge among educated atheists; in my own case they are part of what led me to atheism. I did learn a lot from the chapters on Myths 6 and 7, and simply reading the NT yourself will show you that Myth 8 is patently untrue, although Fitzgerald does a superb job of laying the case out in plain English.
I loved Fitzgerald’s contrast of Pontius Pilate (that’s Pwn-TEA-oose [as in “loose”] Pee-LA-tte [like latte, the Italian word for milk, with stress on the “LA”], by the way – if I hear one more person say “Pawn-tea-us Pilot,” I’m going to shake someone!) as portrayed in the Gospels – “an incredible pantywaist… a dithering nancyboy” – as opposed to the real Pontius Pilate, who was an “arrogant, ruthless despot” who committed “acts of corruption, insults, rapine, outrages on the people, arrogance, repeated murders of innocent victims, and constant and most galling savagery” (Legatio ad Gaium 301). The whole idea of the trial with Pilate, and especially the bit about freeing Barabbas, is laughably historically implausible, for reasons Fitzgerald thoroughly explains. I am less familiar with the archaeological arguments than I am with the literary ones, but after fact-checking these things for myself, I can tell you that Fitzgerald’s scholarship is trustworthy. Also, on page 115, he includes a photograph of the P52 fragment, which was familiar to me – I used the same photo (from the John Rylands University Library) for a talk I gave called “Is The New Testament Historically Reliable?” about a month ago, and I discussed the significance of this fragment – namely, that even though it dates to the 2nd century, it’s the oldest piece of any part of the New Testament that we’ve ever found. I do disagree with Fitzgerald’s dating to circa 150 or in all probability later; he does mention that you can only date within a ~75-year window, but the Hadrianic script, in my humble opinion, would put it closer to the more-commonly accepted date (among Christian apologists, at least) of circa 125, although I admit that dating via script style is very imprecise. In any case, this is (at minimum) still about a century after Jesus is alleged to have died, so you can hardly call it significant as eyewitness testimony, not to mention the fact that content-wise, it’s a bit lacking (that’s an inside joke for those of you who saw my talk 😉 ). As Michael Shermer points out in the opening lines of his prologue to The Science of Good & Evil, “Scientific debates are not settled by consensus opinion.” It doesn’t really matter what most scholars believe (especially if most of these scholars have a different agenda; namely, they are Christian apologists); what matters is what the evidence shows, and the evidence here is lacking. I’m willing to say that I don’t know when P52 was written, but it definitely wasn’t even within a generation of the lifetime of Jesus! As Fitzgerald points out, the real question here anyway is not the age or consistency of these documents, but whether the content is true or not. As he points out, we have the first printings of the Book of Mormon, too, but so what? They are historically unreliable for other excellent reasons, and we disregard them on that basis.
The chapter on Myth 9, I think, makes clear some excellent arguments, especially with his discussion of the astrological elements of the Jesus story, the connection to the 12 “zodiacal accomplices” and the sun-god associations in the very beginning of the 3rd century. Fitzgerald’s analysis of the Kenotic Hymn (Philippians) is SPOT ON (see Isaiah 45). Some of this is probably familiar to you if you’ve seen the movie The God Who Wasn’t There, but I like it better in book form, because in The God Who Wasn’t There, this stuff is just scrolled by on the screen, and you don’t really get a chance to let it soak in, or really have it thoroughly explained to you – and this is really foundational stuff.
I don’t want to give away everything in this review, but the chapter on Myth 10, that Christianity was a totally new & different miraculous overnight success that changed the world, seals the deal. For the first several centuries of its existence, Christianity (which one?) was one (or rather, hundreds) among thousands of cult religions at the time, and it borrowed details about the “Life & Times of Jesus” quite freely from existing mythos. If you know your ancient history, you already know the “similarities” between the savior figures in other religions and the Jesus story, e.g. born to a virgin on December 25, stars appearing at his birth, a visit from astrologers from the East, turning water into wine, healing the sick/casting out demons, transfiguring, riding a donkey into the city (by the way, this is perhaps my favorite Gospel error, the laughable scene in Matthew [who is usually pretty good about correcting Mark’s ignorance] where the author totally misunderstands the Hebrew OT poetic device of synonymous parallelism, the restating of a line using a synonym, in Zechariah 9:9 [see Ehrman 2010 p.50] and has Jesus straddling a colt AND a donkey at the same time – maybe he just had really long legs??), being betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, a final symbolic meal with bread & wine representing his body & blood, being crucified, descending into hell and rising again on the 3rd day, ascending into heaven to sit beside his father and become a divine judge, are ALL elements stolen from preexisting cult followings of the time, e.g. Osirus, Mithras, Horus, Bacchus, Zoroaster, Krishna, Thor, Adonis, Orpheus, Bacchus, Hermes, Dionysis, Hercules, et al.
Fitzgerald’s discussion of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts does a good job of explaining how the growth of Christianity was, in fact, nothing at all like Luke portrayed it. The discussion of Pliny the Younger’s letters to Trajan (note: link is in Latin, continues to 10.96.2) with notes by Carrier is excellent. A lot of the things mentioned here, about how Christianity was able to rise in popularity due to its appeal to the poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised, sinks in much more deeply if you’ve read Gibbon and David Thompson’s The Idea of Rome (which is, unfortunately, out of print and rather hard to find, but I have a copy if anybody is interested in looking at it; just let me know). I have to take a moment here to say that the fall of Rome must have been so utterly foundation-shaking to residents of the ancient world that even as an atheist, I don’t blame them for turning to the promises of Christianity to give them hope. Imagine that you found out Washington DC, New York, Chicago, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Dallas, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and St Louis were all annihilated by atomic bombs on what just happened to be the same day that your parents died in a car accident, you found out you had cancer, AND your significant other left you. That’s probably about what it felt like when Rome fell. I don’t think I would personally convert, but I would be empathetic to those who did. Has nothing at all to do with whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not, though.
I do have one thing to say about this book: It seems to me that its purpose is to get you started. Fitzgerald (although there is definitely a measure of new scholarship) is giving us a clear, concise, and jarring peek into the main arguments for the mythicist case. As I mentioned above, if I had not already spent so much time with Roman writers, and with the history of the Gospels, I would have said, “Yeah, right” and set this book aside. But because I was “primed,” because I already knew from my own reading & research that everything he mentions which I was already familiar with is, in fact, true, I was able to let the idea sink in, and realize that his data do, in fact, agree with what I already know… and with the data from my fact-checking, see that, I’ll be damned, there really isn’t good, conclusive evidence that Jesus existed – or for that matter, even weak evidence that he did.
After careful consideration, I have come to the “conclusion” that the evidence for Jesus is inconclusive. As I mentioned during the opening statement of my debate with Brother Jed two weeks ago, one can say there are two broad categories when it comes to truth statements: True, and not true. Under the “not true” category, you have contradictory, paradoxical, false, and inconclusive. After reading Fitzgerald’s book and thoroughly checking on these things for myself, I can say that it is my position that the idea of a historical Jesus fits wholly into the “inconclusive” sub-category. I don’t know if a historical Jesus existed or not, but it seems unlikely, given everything that I’ve found to corroborate what Fitzgerald writes. As he puts it in the conclusion, if there was a historical Jesus, we would have on our hands a paradox (which is still in the “not true” category, by the way). It is my position that anyone making the case that there was a historical Jesus has a lot of explaining to do. As a skeptic, I would never say that it’s impossible, but the probability, in my mind, has tipped in favor of there not being one. There were possibly several people named Jesus whom history conflated (in fact there’s pretty good evidence of this), but I can’t say for sure, or even with reasonable certainty, that the commonly-known Jesus of Nazareth was any more of a real, single, human individual than Achilles, as I mentioned above.
Never thought I’d hear myself say that!
If you have ever asked yourself, “I wonder what the real Jesus was like?”… do yourself a favor, and buy the book.