Response to an Apologist about The Jesus Mysteries

An apologist wrote a review about the book The Jesus Mysteries by Freke and Gandy.  I normally try to avoid getting involved in discussions with apologists, but I felt like responding this time for some strange reason.  As always, I don’t actually feel like arguing about any of it.  I just wanted to show that scholarly opinion is not so clear.  I suppose it’s unlikely an apologist would consent to any significant doubt, but hopefully he won’t delete my comment so that readers of his blog may see it and make up their own mind.

http://1peter315.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/jesus-mysteries/

I have this book, but it’s been a few years since I read it.  Even though I enjoy their work, I think there are more scholarly writers out there.

“First of all, they too easily discount the evidence for the historical Jesus.  They gloss over Josephus, Paul and the Gospels, even though if this was for any other historical figure it would be plenty of evidence.”

Many scholars doubt or dismiss the mention of Jesus Christ by Josephus.  You can find those who do accept it, but there is no consensus of its authenticity.  The Wikipedia article about Josephus on Jesus does a fairly good job of showing the complexity of debate.

As for Paul and the Gospels, there are many theories.  It’s an endless debate also without concensus amongst scholars.  However, if you’re looking for more scholarly support for Freke and Gandy, then I’d advise checking out Robert M. Price and Earl Doherty.

“Secondly they artificially blend a number of gods into a composite being that no ancient person would recognize.  They claim that Jesus is a form of Osiris-Dionysus and by that they mean that they can take little bits from a dozen or so unrelated myths and see some similarity with the Gospels. ”

Actually, Osiris-Dionysus was a name of the godman that was syncretized during the Hellenistic period prior to Christianity.  Egyptian religion and Hellenism were very syncretistic, and this combining of attributes and names was very common.  If you want more scholarly support for this, then check out Christ in Egypt by D.M. Murdock.

“Thirdly, they misrepresent the role of Gnosticism.  I think they are right to see Gnosticism as playing a parellel role to the pagan mystery religions, socially if not theologically.  However, they fall into the popular trap of saying that there were numerous Christianities right from the beginning, suggesting that Gnosticism might even have been earliest, with orthodox Christianity only later emerging.”

Yes, this is speculative because so little survived from the first century, but there is support for it.  The earliest commentators on the New Testament were all Gnostics (Basilides being the earliest).  In particular, some of the earliest commentators (Marcion and Valentinus) wrote the first commentaries on the earliest NT texts (Paul). 

“The earliest Christian texts that we have (which are found in the New Testament) are in continuity with what became orthodox Christianity and in opposition to Gnosticism.  To get where they want to be, they have to make some ridiculous claims such as Paul being a Gnostic and many of the New Testament books having a late date, well into the second century.”

There are other scholars that argue that Paul never writes about a historical figure and never gives physical details.  Doherty, in particular, writes extensively about Paul.

There is a logical reason for arguing for a late dating for NT books.  As I understand, the earliest copies come from the second century.  It’s traditional to date them earlier, but there is no hard evidence from the first century.

“They are totally out of touch even with critical scholarship and their claims are far from the evidence.”

They’re not out of touch, but they present just one perspective.  Scholars show a great variety in their conclusions.

10 thoughts on “Response to an Apologist about The Jesus Mysteries

  1. I did not delete your comment and have responded to it on my blog. There was nothing offensive in anything you said. Conversation is very important. If you are interested in having a balanced view, you might want to check out my book Unmasking the Pagan Christ. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. I didn’t think I said anything offensive, but experience has made me wary… and weary. Sorry about that. I am very glad you think conversation is important. I like conversation, but I don’t like debate. I sometimes get involved in debates and they don’t make me happy.

    I’m kind of poor at the moment, but I’ll check out your book if I ever come across a copy of it. Maybe the public library will have it. I do like having a balanced view and I try to read widely. Unfortunately, I never seem to have enough time to read as much as I would like.

  3. Here is another response I posted at Stephen Bedard’s blog:

    Yep, I understand your perspective more or less. To everything you’ve said, there are further responses that scholars have articulated. And then you could offer responses to those responses. And on and on. There is no conclusion, no concensus about any of it. If there ever was, that would end of New Testament studies.

    I must admit have limited curiosity about scholarly debates. I’m a person who looks for deeper truths and comparative mythology is one of the ways of seeking it. Still, I have immersed myself somewhat in the online debates that go on. I participated in some of the scholarly discussion boards, but most of it is over my head.

    I’ve heard every criticism possible to the mythicist position, and it still makes sense to me. Each to their own I suppose.

    I’m at the moment reading Christ in Egypt by D.M. Murdock, and it is quite the scholarly tome. Her scholarship is way more impressive than Freke and Gandy. In Christ in Egypt, she is presenting some data that has never been published in English before. She wrote an earlier book titled Who Was Jesus? which wasn’t about mythicism but simply focused on historicism. She focused entirely on Christian sources such as the writings of apologists and the Catholic Encyclopedia, and she used them to question Jesus’ historicism.

    As for Josephus, she speaks about the issue of his referencing Jesus Christ. Have you read her work? Also, Earl Doherty has tons of info about Josephus on his website. Have you read any of what he writes?

    I haven’t studied the Josephus issue too much because it doesn’t seem helpful to me. It’s ultimately irrelevant to the mythicist argument. Some scholars such as Robert M. Price that lean towards the mythicist position are agnostic about Jesus’ historicity. Jesus could’ve existed and yet still the stories about him may have been mythological.

    Like Price, the historical issue doesn’t really matter to me. I’m personally interested in the deeper truths behind it all. I just wrote a blog about how all of the values of Christianity preceeded its origin. I think the values are more important than arguing about whose story is true. The only reason I care about Jesus is because what he taught and represented seems morally valid which would be equally relevant whether he was a physical or spiritual savior.

  4. And yet another response of mine:

    For the sake of discussion, I’ll briefly respond to some of your last post.

    As for Josephus, I was reading the discussion page of the Wikipedia article about Josephus on Jesus. It is a good debate that gets to the fundamental issues.

    There was one issue that stood out to me. When arguing about who is a scholar, many apologists seem to want to define scholars as only people who have had educations at theological training schools. Scholars that are experts in fields such as ancient languages and history often get dismissed by apologists.

    When one goes by the apologist definition of a NT scholar, then of course its hard to find “scholars” who disagree with orthodox Christian belief. Most people interested in gaining a formal education in NT scholarship will naturally be Christians. Nonetheless, NT scholarship crosses over with other fields of scholarship.

    As for Paul, that is a complex subject. I’ve seen so many opinions about what is and isn’t authentic, but I’m not in a position to come to a conclusion. As I think you wrote about in another of your blogs, Robert M. Price questions the authenticity of much of the Pauline texts. But you’re free to disagree with him.

    About Osiris-Dionysus, I don’t know too much about what ancient people believed about this nor their intentions. I think the term ‘Osirus-Dionysus’ is relevant because it was specifically used in the first century BC and so preceded Christianity.

    I am curious about this and I’ll have to see if I can find more info about this Osirus-Dionysus tradition. You seem to speak with certainty. Do you have some more specific info about this Osirus-Dionysus tradition?

    When you speak about modern authors, I assume you’re speaking of Freke and Gandy. Do they “takes the full mythology of a number of gods that they see as similar and blend them together as if they were one story”? Its been a while since I read them, but I thought they were just looking at the similarities. Either the similarities are there or they’re not.

    Regarding Gnosticism, I wasn’t speaking about silence despite the fact that they were mostly silenced. It is true that Christians destroyed all of Basilides work. However, some of the Valentinian and Marcionian texts survived. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know it is a fact that these Gnostics were the earliest commentators on the New Testament. I’ve never heard of this being contested.

    And for the last point, I’m not well informed about the debate about dating. All that I know is that the only hard evidence is the surviving texts from the second century. Claiming first century authorship is speculation, but much of history is speculation. It may or may not be true, but its of no great concern to me.

  5. Respond to whatever you feel like. I don’t desire to debate to any great extent because I’m no expert. I’m just a guy with curiosity who likes to learn.
    When speaking about all of this, I’m forced to rely upon other people’s scholarship. Unfortunately, I don’t know any ancient languages and I most definitely can’t read hieroglyphics. I am, however, trying to educate myself to some degree. And I think I’m doing a halfway decent job considering I never graduated from college.
    Yes, I realize many have contested Gerald Massey’s scholarship. Once agian, I’d recommend judging a scholar by their scholarship… rather than appealing to authority. D.M. Murdock only references him occasionally, but she has attempted to show the merits of his scholarship. Here is her article about him which comes from Christ in Egypt:
    http://www.stellarhousepublishing.com/who-is-gerald-massey.html
    Two basic points from the article: (1) Massey knew numerous languages including hieroglyphics. He worked with primary sources, but cautiously made sure to use translations from more respectable scholars. (2) He referenced all of the best scholarship of his day, and had close relationships with well-established scholars who reviewed his work.
    How many languages do you know? Have you studied hieroglyphics directly for yourself?
    As for Tom Harpur, he is a popularizer, and popularizers have their place. He doesn’t seem to work with primary sources. Personally, I’d put him below Freke and Gandy on the scholarly scale.
    He is more of a Christian commentator and certainly not someone doing groundbreaking research. If you take him for what he is, his books are worth reading him. I prefer his writings where he speaks about the meaning of Christianity. In some ways, he is more similar to an author like Joseph Campbell of whom he quotes.
    (I do like Joseph Campbell. He has some interesting things to say about Christianity. Have you read him?)
    I’d say Harpur is an easy target. I doubt I’d be surprised by any criticisms you’ve had of him. Tom Harpur, for the most part, doesn’t come up in serious mythicist debates much. Mostly, mythicists focus on R.M. Price, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, Carrier. Et Cetera.
    You don’t really need to criticize mythicists because they spend quite a bit of time criticizing eachother. For example, the debate between Carrier and Murdock has been going on for a while. John Loftus also gets involved in these discussions. And several of the more vocal atheists seem to hate the mythicists for some reason. On the old Internet Infidels Discussion Board, Earl Doherty was always being attacked by the same people.
    It’s all rather depressing. Why can’t people just discuss these subjects civilly?
    How do you use Elaine Pagels in your work? I’ve read some of her writings before, but I don’t remember any of the details of her arguments. I do know that she supports a Gnostic origin of Paul. In this, she would seem to be in agreement with the mythicist Earl Doherty.
    As for Steve Mason, I’m not familiar with his work. I only mentioned him because I came across someone else mentioning him. I did a quick Google search and found this article which references him 5 times (2 of which I quote below):
    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/testimonium.html
    – “Steve Mason states: “the passage does not fit well with its context in Antiquities 18. . . Josephus is speaking of upheavals, but there is no upheaval here. He is pointing out the folly of Jewish rebels, governors, and troublemakers in general, but this passage is completely supportive of both Jesus and his followers. Logically, what should appear in this context ought to imply some criticism of the Jewish leaders and/or Pilate, but Josephus does not make any such criticism explicit. He says only that those who denounced Jesus were ‘the leading men among us.’ So, unlike the other episodes, this one has no moral, no lesson. Although Josephus begins the next paragraph by speaking of ‘another outrage’ that caused an uproar among the Jews at the same time (18.65), there is nothing in this paragraph that depicts any sort of outrage.” (p. 165)”
    – “Steve Mason indicates several ways in which the Testimonium deviates from Josephan style.
    First, Mason writes:

    It uses words in ways that are not characteristic of Josephus. For example, the word translated “worker” in the phrase “worker of incredible deeds” is poietes in Greek, from which we get “poet.” Etymologically, it means “one who does” and so it can refer to any sort of “doer.” But in Josephus’ day it had already come to have special reference to literary poets, and that is how he consistently uses it elsewhere (nine times) – to speak of Greek poets like Homer. (p. 169)
    Second, Mason observes:

    Notice further that the phrase “they did not cease” has to be completed by the translator, for it is left incomplete in the text; the action which his followers ceased must be understood from the preceding phrase. This is as peculiar in Greek as it is in English, and such a construction is not found elsewhere in Josephus’ writing. (p. 169)
    Third, Mason argues:

    Again, the phrase “the tribe of the Christians” is peculiar. Josephus uses the word “tribe” (phyle) eleven other times. Once it denotes “gender,” and once a “swarm” of locusts, but usually signfies distinct people, races, or nationalities: the Jews are a “tribe” (War 3.354; 7.327) as are the Taurians (War 2.366) and Parthians (War 2.379). It is very strange that Josephus should speak of the Christians as a distinct racial group, since he has just said that Jesus was a Jew condemned by Jewish leaders. (Notice, however, that some Christian authors of a later period came to speak of Christianity as a “third race.”) (pp. 169-170)
    Finally, there is a peculiarity with the reference to the “principal men among us.” Josephus elsewhere refers to the “principal men,” but Josephus consistently refers to the principal men “of Jerusalem” or “of the city,” using these phrases instead of the first person plural. In his autobiography, Josephus refers to the “principal men of the city” (2), “the principal men of Jerusalem” (7), the “principal men of the city” (12), the “principal men belonging to the city” (12), the “principal men of the city” (12), and the “principal men of Jerusalem” (44). In each case Josephus identifies the leading men as belonging to Jerusalem.”

  6. “Sorry, one more thing. J.D. Crossan strongly supports an authentic testimony to Jesus in Josephus in his important work The Historical Jesus. It is worth checking out.”
    I don’t doubt Crossan is worth checking out. He is one of the major players in New Testament scholarship. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Crossan, but I see references to his work quite often. Several of the authors I like write about him. R.M. Price is interested in him partly because they were both members of the Jesus Seminar, and Earl Doherty goes into some detail about his ideas. I noticed that Tom Harpur begins with a quote of Crossan (from Who Is Jesus?) at the beginning of The Pagan Christ:

    “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

    In her book Who Was Jesus?, D.M. Murdock writes about Crossan a number of times. She even quotes him from The Historical Jesus here:

    (p. 88) “Concerning the TF, Dr. Crossan comments, “It is either a total or partial interpolation by the Christian editors who preserved Josephus’ works.” In evaluating this situation, it needs to be kept in mind that tampering and forgery were widespread in the ancient world, including in both non-Christian and Christian texts, as we have seen in the discussion regarding the massive amounts of variant readings in the copies of the New Testament, as well as the abundant creation of pseudepigraphical literature.”

    And she even quotes him in reference to Pagan parallels:

    (pp. 219-20) “Regarding the Christian virgin birth, in Who Is Jesus? Dr. Crossan remarks:

    The stories of Jesus’ birth are religious fiction, or parable, if you prefer…

    Dr. Crossan further discusses the divine-birth motif found in the Roman world, in the story of Caesar Augustus (63 BCE-14 AD/CE), who was said to have been the son of the Greek sun god Apollo:

    …On the night of his conception, Augustus’ mother, Atia, fell asleep in the Temple of Apollo and was impregnated by the god in the form of a snake. Meanwhile, back at home, Augustus’ father, Octavius, dreamt that the sun was arising from his wife’s womb. Augustus, in other words, was conceived of a divine father and a human mother. And if you think that such stories had no political or social implications but were just imperial propaganda, look at this ancient decree of calendar change in the Roman province of Asia. It is found on marble stelae in all Asian temples dedicated to Rome and Augustus.

    “Whereas Providence…has…adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus…and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in [peaceful] order…with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of the Good News for the world because of him… therefore”

    and it goes on to decree that the new year shall begin for all the Asian cities on the birthday of Caesar Augustus.

    As we can see, in the story of “our God” Augustus we possess an undeniably pre-Christian divine-birth story that was taken quite seriously. In this pre-Christian inscription, we also have a widespread declaration of a “Savior” who brought the “Good News” to the world. Moreover, as Crossan remarks, the Christian birth stories constitute “religious fiction.” “

  7. I’m not trying to be confrontational. I just posted what I happened across.

    I do Google a lot because it’s fun. 🙂 But what I posted about Crossan came from the books I own. Despite my love of the internet, I own lots of books. It’s true, though, that I don’t own any of Crossan’s books.

    I’m becoming more curious with him the more I see references about him.

    As for the quote from Murdock’s book, I don’t think she was saying that Crossan was a proponent of the mythicist position. The purpose of that particular book was to challenge the historicist position by using quotes from respectable Christians and Christian sources.

    I was reading (from a book) some of what R.M. Price was saying about Crossan. He mentioned that Crossan had changed his focus at one point. Price says he was writing post-structuralist arguments. But then the Vatican promoted Liberation Theology and Crossan started to argue for a historical Christ who would provide support for the Vatican position.

    If I remember correctly, Price was saying Crossan portrays Jesus as something like a cynic philosopher… is that correct? I’ll have to go back to Price’s book later and see if I can find the passage.

    That is interesting. For one, I didn’t know Crossan was a Catholic. Also, the Vatican part attracted my attention because I’m always curious about people’s motivations, in particular scholars.

  8. “Regarding Gerald Massey, I deal with him and Alvin Boyd Kuhn in a chapter of our book. My questions about his scholarship are only partitially based on his lack of education, it is more based on my reading of his works.”

    That would definitely make your book worth reading.

    “I have a copy of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and it is on my list but has not been read yet. I am looking forward to it.”

    That is a decent book. More specific to Christianity, I’d recommend Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. In it, he has a couple of chapters on the symbols of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    Carl Jung is similar to Campbell, and Jung is in some ways deeper in his intellectuality. Jung’s most personal writing was about Christianity (Answer to Job) and he dialogued quite a bit with the Father Victor White.

    These two authors are different than writers such as Murdock and Doherty. For one, Campbell and Jung are looking at mythological parallels across all cultures and religions, and so their focus isn’t primarily Christianity. Secondly, they’re looking for deeper meaning beyond just pointing out parallels.

    More in line with Murdock and Doherty, there is another author I came across. Alan Dundes wrote the book Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore. I bought it recently, but have only skimmed it so far. In terms of NT parallels, he mentions several books by other authors: History of the Synoptic Tradition by Rudolf Bultmann, Documents for the Study of the Gospels by David R. Cartilidge and David L. Dungan, and Narrative Parallels to the New Testament by Francis Martin.

    The Wikipedia article about him say that, “Shortly before his death, Dundes was interviewed by filmmaker Brian Flemming for his documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There. He prominently recounted Lord Raglan’s 22-point scale from his 1936 book The Hero, in which he ranks figures possessing similar divine attributions.” Dundes wrote an article titled “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus”. I’ve seen that article compared with Campbell’s work on the Hero’s Journey.

    I found a summary of Dunde’s analysis of Jesus according to the hero pattern:

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jcpa4.htm

    At the end of the summary, there is a quote by Robert Price:

    “The Gospel story of Jesus is itself apparently mythic from first to last….As Dundes is careful to point out, it doesn’t prove there was no historical Jesus for it is not implausible that a genuine, historical individual might become so lionized, even so deified, that his life and career would be completely assimilated to the Mythic Hero Archetype…Thus it seems to me that Jesus must be categorized with other legendary founder figures, including the Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-tzu. There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure.”

  9. I realize your time is at limited… but, since you’ve read Crossan, I have some questions for you. What is his conclusion that connects both of the quotes from the same book? I don’t have his book around to check, and so I’m wondering about the first quote. What section of Josephus’ text does the “It” refer to? According to Crossan, what specifically is “either a total or partial interpolation”? In the second quote, what are the “boldface Christian inserts”? And in what ways should Josephus’ commentary not be diminished?

    “It is either a total or partial interpolation by the Christian editors who preserved Josephus’ works.”

    “We are left, in other words, with that Greek text of Josephus but minus the boldface Christian inserts. And all that debate should not diminish the importance of Josphus’ commentary. That is how Jesus and early Christianity looked to a very prudent, diplomatic, and cosmopolitan Roman Jew in the early last decade of the first century.” (Historical Jesus p. 374)

  10. I was thinking you might find it interesting that supposedly Wells thought there was evidence for a historical figure at the core of the mythological accretions. This also reminds me of what I’ve read about Bultmann who also supposedly saw a historical Jesus below layers mythology.

    The interview I was listening to of Carrier made a good point. He didn’t think arguing against a historical Jesus was a good defense of mythicism. He didn’t think people were idiots for believing in a historical Jesus, but they just weren’t looking at the same evidence he was.

    Anyways, he turned the argument around. The proliferation of evidence of mythicism is what brings doubt to historicity. He admitted there was evidence that could be interpreted as supporting historicism, but sometimes the exact same evidence could likewise support mythicism. This evidence couldn’t by itself decide which was correct. And that is where mythicism then seeks other types of evidence.

    Unfortunately, it was just an interview and so he didn’t go into many details. It makes me curious to read more of him.

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