It’s Time To Ponder Whether Jerry Coyne Knows What He’s Talking About

Can a biologist really give us the answers on questions of ancient history? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

We’ve had some fun on here before reviewing the “work” of Jerry Coyne and yet, he has provided even more fodder for us. In a recent writing, he has come down on the side of the idea that Jesus never even existed. Of course, if he holds to that, there’s no longer really any basis for his making fun of young-earth creationists (Of which I am not one) for holding a position that goes so much against the scientific consensus. Still, let’s look at what he says:

I’m also surprised at how certain many biblical scholars are that Jesus existed (Bart Ehrman, to give a prominent example).

Why be surprised? Historians who know how to do history look at the data and conclude that the best explanation for what we have is that a historical Jesus once walked this Earth. The debate is not over if He existed, but the debate is over what He did and said in His life. Of course, it’s not a shock to hear Bart Ehrman is the first mentioned. I find that if you ask most atheists, the only scholars they seem to know of in the area of Biblical studies are Bart Ehrman, Robert Price, and Richard Carrier. (The last one is the be all and end all in historical studies to most internet atheists. Carrier has spoken. The case is closed.)

Yet although I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in Jesusology, I think I’ve read enough to know that there is no credible extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’s existence, and that arguments can be made that Jesus was a purely mythological figure, perhaps derived from earlier such figures, who gradually attained “facthood.” As a scientist, I’ll say that I don’t regard the evidence that Jesus was a real person as particularly strong—certainly not strong enough to draw nearly all biblical scholars to that view. It’s almost as if adopting mythicism brands you as an overly strident atheist, one lacking “respect” for religion. There’s an onus against mythicism that can’t be explained by the strength of evidence against that view.

Jesusology. That’s cute. We can suspect that when Coyne says he’s read enough that means “I read a book by Richard Carrier and his blog posts and that settled it for me.” We would very much like to see him try to make a historical argument some time and see if he can make one that can garner the attention of even liberal and atheistic New Testament scholars. His claim that there is no extra-biblical evidence is in fact, entirely bogus, but we will get to that more as we go through.

Towards the end, you could deal with this simply by replacing the word mythicism with young-earth creationism and religion with science. Coyne should see that his position is seen as ridiculous to scholars for a reason. It is ridiculous. It is a conspiracy theory for atheists.

Probably nobody reading this post thinks that Jesus was the miracle-working son of God, and that pretty much disposes of his importance for Christianity. In the end, I’m most surprised at how much rancor is involved in these arguments, especially by the pro-Jesus side, even when that side readily admits that Jesus was not the son of God. (I can understand, of course, why Christians want to argue that Jesus was a real person.)

Well no. Some people reading this post do hold that Jesus is that, but that’s because many of us regularly read what disagrees with us. Most of us who are making the arguments against mythicism have read many books by the mythicists themselves. Furthermore, to say that if Jesus is not the miracle working Son of God then His importance to Christianity is disposed is quite amusing. Christianity is here regardless and it was there regardless and we should seek to know what role Jesus played in it even if the Biblical one is not accurate.

At this Coyne recommends we read the following article. The writer, Brian Bethune, relies heavily on Bart Ehrman and his latest work on memory, which I have responded to already here. Unfortunately, I find Ehrman’s case incredibly lacking as have scholars in the field. Bethune also too quickly dispatches group memory not realizing how it works, especially when he keeps making analogies of a telephone type game.

The article goes on to say that:

Yet Pilate is in Mark as the agent of Jesus’s crucifixion, from which he spread to the other Gospels, and also in the annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and writings by his Jewish counterpart, Josephus. Those objective, non-Christian references make Pilate as sure a thing as ancient historical evidence has to offer, unless—as has been persuasively argued by numerous scholars, including historian Richard Carrier in his recent On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubt—both brief passages are interpolations, later forgeries made by zealous Christians.

Yes. Numerous scholars have argued this. Numerous ones like….

Well, there’s Carrier…

And there’s….

Well we’d really like to know!

Now to be sure, most scholars do agree that there is SOME interpolation in Josephus by Christians, but they do not say that the whole is an interpolation. There is a historical core. The second passage mentioning Jesus is even more attested and is not what a Christian would interpolate. A Christian would not write “the so-called Christ.”

As for Tacitus, we’re on even firmer grounds. I do not know of any other scholar who says this is an interpolation. Also, this is not the kind of statement a Christian would interpolate. A Christian would have Jesus spoken of in far more glowing terms than this and would not risk it being considered a mischievous superstition.

But hey, Carrier has spoken. The case is closed.

Now we could talk about the apostle Paul in Bethune’s article. What does he say?

That the Gospels provide only debatable evidence for historians has long obscured the fact that the bulk of the New Testament, its epistles, provide none at all. The seven genuine letters of St. Paul, older than the oldest Gospel and written by the single most important missionary in Christian history, add up to about 20,000 words. The letters mention Jesus, by name or title, over 300 times, but none of them say anything about his life; nothing about his ministry, his trial, his miracles, his sufferings. Paul never uses an example from Jesus’s sayings or deeds to illustrate a point or add gravitas to his advice—and the epistles are all about how to establish, govern and adjudicate disputes within Christianity’s nascent churches. And, despite knowing the apostles Peter, James and John, he never settles a dispute by saying, “Peter, who was there at the time, told me Jesus said this . . . ” Nor, by the evidence of his correspondence, did any faraway Christian ever ask Paul about Jesus’s life. Everything the Apostle claims to know about Jesus comes from his reading of the hidden messages in Old Testament passages and by direct revelation, the latter being the very thing that proves its worth, as he told the Galatians.

Carrier’s book on the case for Christ as a mythical construct rather than an actual human being is something of a breakthrough on the mythicist front. He gives credit to earlier writers, especially Canadian Earl Doherty, but Carrier’s rigorously argued discussion—made all the more compelling for the way it bends over backwards to give the historicist case an even chance—is the first peer-reviewed historical work on mythicism. He’s relatively restrained in his summation of the absences in Paul’s letters. “That’s all simply bizarre. And bizarre means unexpected, which means infrequent, which means improbable.” Historicists have no real response to it. Ehrman simply says, “It’s hard to know what to make of Paul’s non-interest; perhaps he just doesn’t care about Jesus before his resurrection.” Other historians extend that lack-of-curiosity explanation to early Christians in general, which is not only contrary to the usual pattern of human nature, but seems to condemn the Gospels as fiction: if Christians couldn’t have cared less about the details of Jesus’s life and ministry, they wouldn’t have preserved them, and the evangelists would have been forced to make up everything.

No. Historicists do have a response to it. The response is there was no need to mention these events. What benefit would they do? If you’re writing about how to handle meat offered to idols, how does it help to know that Jesus worked miracles? In a high-context society, the background knowledge was assumed and communication was meant to fill in the details that weren’t known. In fact, myself and some of my friends have made a whole joke of this kind of claim with the idea that if Paul believed in the virgin birth, surely he would have mentioned it. Well no. I have only heard a few sermons that taught about the virgin birth and I am convinced the preachers I heard all believed in it. Their not mentioning it does no mean they don’t affirm it. To show the humor of this, we regularly interjected in random conversations (And still do) that we affirm the virgin birth. (Which by the way, I do affirm.)

In fact, one aspect that is amusing is this whole article is meant to show us that memory is not reliable and what is one point they have in there? They have Ehrman’s memory of what happened when he was in school talking to a professor. This is supposed to be accepted at face value even though by Ehrman’s criteria, it should be rife with suspicion. The author himself accepts it and then goes on to tell us that memory can’t be trusted.

Coyne goes on to say that

What that further means is that over the four or five decades spanning the reported date of Jesus’s death and the first written scriptural account of his deeds (the Gospel of Mark) the Story of Jesus could involve not just severe distortion, but even fabrication.

Certainly it could have, but that does not mean that it did. Both sides have a burden to prove, but let’s suppose it did. Are we to think that within the timeframe when there could be eyewitnesses and people who knew eyewitnesses that the entire story would be overturned immediately and people would suddenly hold to a historical Jesus even though there was no memory of him anywhere by anyone? This was all tied in to a particular place and time with particular people. It is one thing to say a legend rises up quickly. It is another to say the legend totally supplants the real historical truth that quickly.

Bethune then argues that the one “solid” fact buttressing Jesus’s existence—his execution under Pontius Pilate, a historical figure—is likely based on post-Biblical fabrication, since many early Christians didn’t accept Pilate as executioner or even that Jesus died around the time of his reign. As Bethune notes, “Snap that slender reed and the scaffolding that supports the Jesus of history—the man who preached the Sermon on the Mount and is an inspiration to millions who do not accept the divine Christ—is wobbling badly.”

Many early Christians? Who were these many early Christians? It would be nice if we knew that. Unfortunately, we don’t. If he wants to say Paul never explicitly mentions that, well why should he? Silence does not equal ignorance. If all we had was the writing of Tacitus on this, we would in fact have enough to believe a man named Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

Bethune draws heavily from the work of Richard Carrier, a prominent mythicist. I’ve read quite a bit of that and find it heavy weather, but in the end agree with Carrier that mythicism appears to be rejected by Biblical scholars for mere psychological reasons. Christianity is a bedrock of Western society, so even if we doubt the divinity of Jesus, can’t we just make everyone happy by agreeing that the New Testament is based on a real person? What do we have to lose?

Because when you don’t have an argument against your opponent, psychoanalysis works well. Scholars have pored over every word of the New Testament with great detail and yet we’re supposed to believe they just gave in on this one to Christians? Seriously? There’s a reason Carrier and other mythicists are not taken seriously in scholarship. It’s because their case is weak.

But I’m not willing to do that—not until there’s harder evidence. And I’m still puzzled why Bart Ehrman, who goes even farther in demolishing the mythology of Jesus in his new book, remains obdurate about the fact that such a man existed. Remember that eleven historical Americans signed statements at the beginning of the Book of Mormon testifying that they either saw the Angel Moroni point out the golden plates that became the Book, or saw the plates themselves. Yet nearly all of us reject that signed, dated, eyewitness testimony as total fabrication. Why are we so unwilling to take a similar stand about Jesus?

Oooh look. Mormonism! Okay. Once again Coyne, many of us know about this story. In fact, what I did was I talked with someone who seriously has investigated Mormonism on this question. Maybe you should have done the same. There’s more to good research than doing what you did, just citing Wikipedia. Last I saw, good scientists are supposed to ask questions.

In the end, I once again conclude that there’s a reason mythicism is laughed at. We can give thanks that people like Jerry Coyne are doing all they can to lower the intellectual standards of atheists everywhere.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

  • David Marshall

    What amuses me about Coyne’s book on religion is how stridently and self-righteously Jerry stands up for open debate — when those of us who have actually had contact with him know he can’t handle a challenge from an informed Christian on his web site. Heck, even when he posted on how Christians were such cowards for allegedly suppressing my debate with Phil Zuckerman, ranting on and on about the superior courage of scientists, he simply refused to allow my rebutting comments to appear in the pristinely elevated forum of his blog.

    Coyne is like one of those children who stand outside their own front doors, with their big brother nearby, and throw iceballs at the neighbor kids. Then when the neighbor kids throw snow balls back, they run inside and lock the door, or get their brother to go beat up the neighbor kids.

  • Allen Hainline

    Nice blog – concerning Tacitus, I think you meant to say “who says this is an interpolation” rather than “who says this is an interpretation”

    • Daniel T. Wynne

      No, he meant interpolation.

  • Daniel T. Wynne

    Since you went to great pains to affirm the Virgin Birth, it’s a shame you couldn’t tag Eric Chabot.

  • Monarchlady

    Grammatical error first paragraph: “…there’s no longer really any basis for him making fun of….” should read: “..any basis for HIS making fun of….” I would like to email this correction to Mr. Peters, but no address for him.

    • I have seen it. Thank you. It will be taken care of.