Review of Is This Not the Carpenter? (Part I)

Title: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus

Editors: Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna

Bibliographic info: viii + 266 + 13

Cover: Hard

Publisher: Equinox, 2012

Buy it at Amazon

With thanks to Equinox for the review copy!

In participating in the biblioblogging world over the past few years, one of the stranger things I have learned is that there is a very small (and some might say negligible) group of people (comprised of legit academics as well as passionate and educated laypeople) who believe (or lean towards the idea) that there was no actual historical figure behind the religious figure of Jesus. Instead, they view Jesus as being an entirely mythical character (this view is commonly known as Jesus mythicism or the Christ-myth theory). This present volume, comprised of thirteen essays, is by no means a case for Jesus mythicism, but is meant to be an open discussion giving a fresh examination of historicity issues surrounding Jesus without necessarily relying upon the assumption of a historical Jesus. In fact, some of the contributors to this volume unhesitatingly believe in a historical Jesus, others do not, and others are agnostic on the issue.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, Into the Well of Historical Scholarship, consists of five essays which shall be discussed in this first part of my review.

The initial chapter in this volume is, “A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From the Chronicler to the Present”, by infamous biblioblogger Jim West. He begins by providing his working definition of the term “minimalism”, saying that it is “the supposition that the biblical text cannot rightly or honestly be mined for historical reconstructions of ancient Israel or earliest Christianity” (27). The thrust of his contribution is that the biblical authors weren’t terribly concerned about relating actual history, but were instead only doing theology:

[T]he purpose of the Bible is not to offer twenty-first century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills. It is to speak theologically to ancient (and I would also say, modern) communities of faith. (27) …

The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. (30)

To demonstrate his point West uses the conflicting accounts in 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel regarding the causation behind David taking a census of Israel (2 Samuel says it was Yahweh and 1 Chronicles says it was Satan).  He also draws upon the apostle Paul and how he says that “though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Cor. 5.16). He believes that this verse, while demonstrating that Paul shows scant concern for the historical Jesus, nevertheless does not challenge the historicity of Jesus. Jim West’s contribution provides a refreshing attitude towards the biblical text that I wish more people in the church possessed, though without the duplicity found in some who, while saying that the biblical text is only concerned with theology and not history, nevertheless still expects one to believe in the historicity of all the biblical narrative.

Roland Boer provides the content for the second chapter which is titled, “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer. Boer provides a pretty interesting discussion on the role that religion and the state played in historical Jesus conflicts in 19th century Germany. In a nutshell, Boer discusses the materialization of radical biblical criticism and its interplay with public life in 19th century Germany, specifically honing in on the impact of Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss, and Bruno Bauer. Quite an interesting read.

The third chapter, “‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources”, is written by Lester Grabbe. This chapter discusses whether there is support for the existence of a historical Jesus in the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus. Grabbe concludes that the source of Tacitus’ reference to Christ (in Annales 15.44) “is unlikely to have been Christians” (58) and that “it seems likely that Tacitus’ source is Roman” (59). I think Grabbe could have fleshed out the argument for his conclusion on Tacitus better, as well as discussed alternative hypotheses for the source. Grabbe also says that Suetonius “may possibly have had some independent information on Jesus” (59), and that Pliny “gives no information about the historical Jesus beyond the traditional beliefs of Christians themselves” (61).

The bulk of this essay is on Josephus and the Testimonium Flavianum, a subject on which one can still find literature being written about it, with the most recent journal article on it (that I am aware of) being Ulrich Victor’s Das Testimonium Flavianum: Ein authentischer Text des Josephus (Novum Testamentum, 2010). This essay isn’t referenced in Grabbe’s essay though, perhaps because it wasn’t available when he was writing this chapter. Grabbe rejects the conclusion held by a few that the TF is a complete fabrication, instead believing that Josephus did mention Jesus, albeit the version preserved in the extant manuscripts is an embellished version of the text. Grabbe’s overall conclusion is that Josephus and Tacitus obtained their information about Jesus independently of one another and that their “independent references to Jesus make it very likely that such an individual existed and was known as the founder of the Christian sect” (69). I don’t quite get the logic of this. I mean, sure it would provide support of the belief that Jesus was known as the founder of the Christian sect, but not necessarily that such an individual actually existed.

Chapter four, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”, is from the pen of Niels Peter Lemche. This essay discusses the hostility that has been directed towards scholars who have suggested in the past that Jesus wasn’t exactly as the Gospels depicted him. Quite an interesting read. Apparently being a minimalist can be a danger to your health and career!

The final chapter of this section is Emanuel Pfoh’s, “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem.” Pfoh starts off with a disclaimer that he isn’t a scholar in regards to early Christianity or the New Testament. Instead, he specializes in the historical anthropology of the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages (i.e. 3300-600 BCE). The “epistemological problem” that Pfoh discusses is that the figure of Jesus needs to be understood within the context of the mythic Near Eastern world, specifically in that there needs to be a “critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual world supporting such” (79).

Pfoh brings up how scholars, such as Bultmann and his demythologization project of the Gospels (see pg. 83), attempt to separate the historical wheat from the mythical chaff of the New Testament in order to arrive at the historical Jesus of history. This exercise, according to Pfoh, runs up against a wall. He says:

The problem of the figure of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is, for the historian of ancient personalities, analogous to those made by ancient Egyptian or Assyrian depictions of the kings. If such personalities are constructed within the realm of mythic motifs, distant from an historicist recalling of reality, how can the modern historian deconstruct what is portrayed in ancient stories and attempt a separation of the ideological features of the given figure and its individual features, without ‘breaking’ it? Regarding Jesus, then, how can we know the ipsissima verba et facta Jesu when all we have is a mythic set of stories (the Gospels) whose narrative patterns and thematic motifs depend on ancient literature which addresses comparable themes? (85)

I think Pfoh’s argument is pertinent, but only to the degree that it undercuts the efficacy of historical Jesus studies. It can’t, however, be used to support the case against a historical Jesus. In order for that, one would need to posit a legit case of how such a mythic figure arose (sans having a historical Jesus). And that is why I just really can’t take Jesus mythicism seriously. I haven’t come across such a hypothesis. Having a historical figure as the impetus behind the Jesus of the Gospels and Pauline epistles is a much more simple hypothesis, and one which explains the data better, than positing the idea that he was a wholly mythic figure. I must point out that Pfoh isn’t saying that his argument denies the existence of a historical figure. He is actually aware of the limitations of his argument and in fact says that:

There might have been a person called Yehoshua bar Yosef in the first century and the Gospels might have built their stories on some of his activities, but we cannot base a historical reconstruction of his life on the Gospels’ stories. (86)

Pfoh concludes his chapter by saying:

My opinion is that such an inquiry is doomed to failure due to clear methodological and epistemological reasons: we cannot test a mythic figure historically, an individual who — despite his central religious role in early Christianity’s rise in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia — does not reflect the world of historical evidence but dwells rather in the ancient world of tradition and faith, miracles and beliefs, a world in which whatever the figure of Jesus might embody does not need our tests for historicity in order to exist! … But of a person named Jesus who inhabited that society’s historical world, we cannot have concrete historical knowledge of him. All we have are ancient presentations of faith in a mythic figure. (92)

What value do the chapters in this section provide for anyone investigating the question of the historicity of Jesus? Well, even though they are were all interesting to read, it is only really the contributions of Grabb and Pfoh that are directly relevant in this regard.

Read Part II

7 responses

  1. Over the past year or so of hearing all the various arguments on both sides, I have slowly inched from the “you’d have to be insane to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus” camp to the Enemy. I don’t mean to stir up any debate (or ire!) here, other than to say that Price and Carrier have both proposed hypotheses of the sort you say you haven’t come across, and they’re probably worth considering along with all the historical Jesus hypotheses — which themselves cannot all be correct. Historical Jesus comes in so many flavours, he’s turned into a Baskin Robbins of late.

    I’ve also been exploring Margaret Barker’s fascinating scholarly works as well. She makes a pretty case (though I’m still working my way through one of her books) that Christians were really just preserving the Jewish El/Yahweh paradigm of two divine beings, God and the son of God, and it it seems pretty obvious that this is so given how the title “Lord” is pretty much reserved for Yahweh in the LXX and Jesus in the NT, while “God most high” and similar epithets are reserved for El in the LXX and God the Father in the NT. That doesn’t negate the historical Jesus, but it does do away with the need for one to explain a lot of the early Christian writings.

    • What writings are you specifically referring to by Price and Carrier that give mythic hypotheses? “Deconstructing Jesus” by Price? And that recent book by Carrier which resorts to Bayesian understanding? (can’t remember the name of it).

      The best example of a mythicist case I’ve come across is Earl Doherty’s “Jesus: Neither God nor Man.” Though it didn’t convince me at all.

      I’ve read Barker’s “The Great Angel.” Was interesting.

      • I’m actually not thinking of any specific writings by Price or Carrier, but the hypotheses they have described in various lectures or (in Price’s case) podcasts. I think Carrier is overly confident on some points, but he is well-versed in Hellenistic religion sharp as a tack.

        Though Price does have some clear ideas on how the church historicized Jesus, he focuses less on that and more on simply pointing out the literary and mythological nature of *everything* we have on Jesus. (I gather Thomas L. Thompson, who does not directly concern himself with the mythicist-versus-historicist debate, makes a similar case, though I have only skimmed The Messiah Myth thus far.)

        Obviously we can’t get away with the question that always sits in the background: what does Christianity do if the Jesus of church tradition turns out to be completely different from the Jesus of history? When it comes down to it, Bart Ehrman’s Jesus is just as problematic as Robert Price’s Jesus.

    • Paul,

      –‘… Price and Carrier have both proposed hypotheses of the sort you say you haven’t come across, and they’re probably worth considering along with all the historical Jesus hypotheses — which themselves cannot all be correct. Historical Jesus comes in so many flavours, he’s turned into a Baskin Robbins of late.’

      Yet all of the historical Jesus hypotheses support a historical Jesus. That’s the critical point.

      In fact, the academic consensus on the five most important facts about Jesus’ life and death is virtually universal:

      –‘Nearly 100% of historical scholars from 1975 – present agree with the following statements:

      * Jesus really lived and was killed on a Roman cross.
      * Jesus’ disciples believed He appeared to them.
      * Jesus’ brother, James, went from being a pre-crucifixion skeptic to a post-crucifixion church leader.
      * The Apostle Paul believed Jesus appeared to him and he wrote most of the books attributed to him, including Romans, I & II Corinthians, Philemon and others.

      75% of the same scholars agree that the tomb was empty.’


      Multiple interpretations of Jesus’ identity and mission do not detract from his historicity. We have scant evidence for the existence of Confucius, Socrates and Siddhārtha Gautama (arguably less than Jesus) and what little data there is, is interpreted in a variety of ways. Yet they are nevertheless considered historical.

      The fundamental weakness of mythicism is its consistent failure to engage with Second Temple Judaism. No serious scholar doubts that Christianity emerged from STJ (rather than pagan mythology) and that Jesus must be interpreted within this context. It is ludicrous to entertain alternative origins when all the evidence supports a more parsimonious conclusion.

  2. Pingback: Around the Blogosphere (10.12.2012) | Near Emmaus

  3. Pingback: Irony Anyone? Mythicists Depend on Christian Theological Interpretation |

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