Once Again, Does Jerry Coyne Have A Clue?

Is mythicism at all viable? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Wednesday, I wrote some on Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, which means he’s naturally capable of being an authority on the historical Jesus. Today, I’d like to look at more of his *cough* arguments *cough* for their not being a historical Jesus. Naturally, I expect to find the same kind of rank nonsense that I find any time I engage with mythicists. As I have said before, mythicism is a conspiracy theory for atheists.

I have to say that I’m coming down on the “mythicist” side, simply because I don’t see any convincing historical records for a Jesus person. Everything written about him was decades after his death, and, as far as I can see, there is no contemporaneous record of a Jesus-person’s existence (what “records” exist have been debunked as forgeries). Yet there should have been some evidence, especially if Jesus had done what the Bible said. But even if he was simply an apocalyptic preacher, as Ehrman insists, there should have been at least a few contemporaneous records. Based on their complete absence, I am for the time being simply a Jesus agnostic. But I don’t pretend to be a scholar in this area, or even to have read a lot of the relevant literature. I haven’t even read Richard Carrier’s new book promoting the mythicist interpretation, though I will.

So let’s see what we have here. We have a claim such as that contemporary records have been debunked as forgeries. This is quite problematic since first off, let’s suppose he’s talking about the Pauline epistles. Seven of those are accepted universally as Pauline. If he’s talking about the Gospels, then how can they be forgeries since the body of the work doesn’t say who wrote the work itself? If he means Tacitus and Josephus and others, this would be news to the scholarly community. So what is he talking about? We don’t know, but Coyne’s followers who are just as historically illiterate as he is will eat this up.

Coyne also says there should be some record. Well why? Jesus was a guy who would have been born in a low ranking town like Nazareth who never went to battle, never wrote a book, never ran for office, etc. and died by crucifixion, the most shameful way to die. As I have said earlier, by these standards, Jesus is not worth talking about. What amazes me is not how few people mentioned Jesus. What amazes me is that anyone at all did.

Normally, we compare like with like, but let’s compare Jesus with someone else. How about Hannibal? Here’s a guy who was the leader of the greatest enemy Rome had who nearly conquered the empire by trouncing over every argument sent his way. This is a man worth talking about! Everyone would have been talking about him. So what do we have with contemporary records?

Zip. Nadda. Not a thing. In fact, let’s take Coyne’s statement and turn it around.

Everything written about him was decades after his death, and, as far as I can see, there is no contemporaneous record of a Hannibal-person’s existence.

This is exactly the same and yet there is no great debate that Hannibal existed. We could say likewise of other figures like Queen Boudica and Arminius who both greatly resisted the Roman empire. These people weren’t mentioned by contemporaries and were written about decades later, but they were definitely real. Yet this little preacher who never traveled the Roman Empire and died by crucifixion? Everyone should have mentioned Him!

Coyne can talk about how he doesn’t pretend to be a scholar, but of course he is. He’s the one who has written a book about Faith vs. Fact. (Which is simply awful. That’s not just me saying that. Look at what Edward Feser had to say.) Coyne also says he hasn’t read Carrier’s book. Well I can assure him that I have, and I find it also just as lacking but hey, at least I do read the scholarship that disagrees with me.

Because of the paucity of evidence, we can expect this question to keep coming up. And so it’s surfaced once again, in a PuffHo piece by Nigel Barber.

We can see it coming up the same way we see debates on evolution taking place. At least there are more Ph.D.s in the field who question evolution than there are those in the field who question Jesus’s existence, yet Coyne would not for a moment think there is a serious debate as to if evolution is true or not. I’m also not saying evolution is true or not true. I really don’t care. I just know that Coyne is not talking about a debate that is taking place in the academy. It’s only taking place on the internet where sadly most anyone can show up and be taken seriously because they have an opinion.

Barber, who has a Ph.D. in biopsychology and a website at Psychology Today (“The Human Beast”), has also written six books.  And in the Sept. 25 edition (is that the right word?) of PuffHo, he takes up the question of the historicity of Jesus. His piece, “If Jesus never existed, religion may be fiction,” briefly lays out the mythicist case. Of course religion itself is nota fiction, but what Barber means is that Christianity’s empirical support, like that of Scientology or Mormonism, may well rest on a person or events that simply didn’t exist.

Ah yes. A Ph.D. in biopsychology and has written six books. Well that means he’s obviously qualified to write on the topic. I suppose then that Coyne would have no problem with N.T. Wright being seen as an authority on evolution. Again, don’t expect Coyne to go with the scholars here. There’s a good reason for that. He’s not really going to find them.

Of course, Barber has a “devastating” argument from Paulkovich. Actually, the argument is about as devastating as Ken Ham would be to Coyne, but oh well. He’s written an article so surely he’s an authority.

Various historical scholars attempted to authenticate Jesus in the historical record, particularly in the work of Jesus-era writers. Michael Paulkovich revived this project as summarized in the current issue of Free Inquiry.

Paulkovich found an astonishing absence of evidence for the existence of Jesus in history. “Historian Flavius Josephus published his Jewish Wars circa 95 CE. He had lived in Japhia, one mile from Nazareth – yet Josephus seems unaware of both Nazareth and Jesus.” He is at pains to discredit interpolations in this work that “made him appear to write of Jesus when he did not.” Most religious historians take a more nuanced view agreeing that Christian scholars added their own pieces much later but maintaining that the historical reference to Jesus was present in the original. Yet, a fudged text is not compelling evidence for anything.

Paulkovich consulted no fewer than 126 historians (including Josephus) who lived in the period and ought to have been aware of Jesus if he had existed and performed the miracles that supposedly drew a great deal of popular attention. Of the 126 writers who should have written about Jesus, not a single one did so (if one accepts Paulkovich’s view that the Jesus references in Josephus are interpolated).

Paulkovich concludes:

“When I consider those 126 writers, all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not – and Paul and Marcion and Athenagoras and Matthew with a tetralogy of opposing Christs, the silence from Qumram and Nazareth and Bethlehem, conflicting Bible stories, and so many other mysteries and omissions – I must conclude that Christ is a mythical character.”

He also considers striking similarities of Jesus to other God-sons such as Mithra, Sandan, Attis, and Horus. Christianity has its own imitator. Mormonism was heavily influenced by the Bible from which founder Joseph Smith borrowed liberally.

On the surface, this looks convincing to a lot of people, but again, it ignores the relevant factors that this is common for people of the time and that Jesus was not worth talking about. But then, to do a Billy Mays impersonation, but wait, there’s more. Paulkovich has had his own number of critics out there.

Let’s start with a look by Candida Moss and Joel Baden who last I checked are not in the tank for evangelical Christianity. They point out numerous problems with the list. By the way Coyne, if you see this, you should know about this:

Let’s get one thing straight: There is nigh universal consensus among biblical scholars—the authentic ones, anyway—that Jesus was, in fact, a real guy. They argue over the details, of course, as scholars are wont to do, but they’re pretty much all on the same page that Jesus walked the earth (if not the Sea of Galilee) in the 1st century CE.

So as I said, the debate going on is not in the academy any more than young-earth creationism and geocentrism are seriously debated in the academy. Moss and Baden go through the list after saying this and note that some figures lived and wrote before Jesus was even born so big shock that they didn’t mention him. Some were philosophers and writers in other areas like Epictetus and Martial who didn’t write much about current events. Some were doctors who would not likely write about Jesus either.

In fact, some people in the list aren’t even writers, but Paulkovich includes them. When the writers are done showing the weaknesses of the list, they go a step further. They show that by his own argument, Paulkovich doesn’t exist since no historians of our age have ever mentioned him before in their writings. He also hasn’t written anything biographical about himself and apparently doesn’t even have a Twitter. (At least at the time of writing that piece) Maybe we should be skeptical that Paulkovich exists.

There are atheists who have critiqued this and even those sympathetic to mythicism. The linked to article here ends with

As an atheist, I long for a much better class of atheists, atheists writing about history who are not historically illiterate.

There is no doubt Jerry Coyne would be included in that. In fact, the above author wrote an open letter that looks at this even further. Jerry Coyne no doubt avoided any serious investigation and just saw that it argued against Christianity and, well, it must be true! It’s as if atheists on the internet have a flowchart they look at and when they see a claim they ask “Does it argue against Christianity?” If so, it is true. If not, it could be true or false, but if it makes Christianity look good, it’s obviously bogus.

Of course, we doubt that Coyne has done any real research beyond reading something on the internet, but hey, if he wants to lower the intellectual standards of his own followers, let him. If he wants people to accept evolution as true, he’s not doing any favors by accepting something that is seen as crank nonsense by scholars in the field. Those of us who read the scholarly literature can only look at Coyne and think he is someone who is entirely gullible with what he will believe. Of course, that doesn’t mean evolution is false, but it sure means we have to question Coyne’s ability to evaluate evidence.

Barber goes on to talk about how the origin of Mormonism was a sham promulgated by a con man (an interpretation I accept). Yet even in that case there’s better evidence than we have for Jesus, for the Book of Mormon opens with two statements from eleven witnesses—people who were contemporaries of Joseph Smith—who swore that they saw the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. Those people are historical figures who can be tracked down, and so the evidence for the existence of the plates is stronger than for the existence of a historical Jesus.

Ah Jerry. You’re so funny. Like I said last time, all you needed to do was talk to some experts on Mormonism about this. I asked Rob Bowman about this on my own podcast. Coyne will not mention facts such as the supposed plates were kept under wraps at Smith’s own home and his own wife wasn’t allowed to look underneath the covers to see them or move them or that Smith would only show the plates to someone if they said they had the “eyes of faith” and even then it’s questionable if they physically saw them. But hey, details. Who needs them?

Barber finishes by describing how credulous people have started sects based on phony gurus and leaders, and, indeed, how an Indian film director decided to create his own religion by pretending he was a guru.  And of course we all know how L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology based on a bunch of science-fiction writings and a phony theology involving Xenu, volcanoes, and thetans. How people can buy that stuff—and there’s a lot of them—is beyond me. But of course you don’t get to learn the theology of Scientology until you’ve spent thousands of dollars, and so are inclined to accept it (bogus as it is) because of the “sunk-costs fallacy.”

The irony here is incredibly thick. Yes. Credulous people have bought into a lot of goofy ideas. They’ve also bought into the goofy idea that Jesus never even existed. Hint. If you’re going to talk about people being credulous for buying into stupid ideas, don’t be endorsing Jesus mythicism on your own blog while admitting you haven’t read the scholarly evidence. Coyne should have no basis now for going after young-earth creationists.

At any rate, if there is no contemporaneous record of Jesus, there should have been, how seriously should we take his historical existence? I am not inclined to accept the Bible as convincing evidence for a historical Jesus.

And if there is no contemporaneous record of Hannibal? Of Queen Boudica? Of Arminius? Be consistent. Many of the lives of Plutarch are considered reliable even centuries later. Richard Carrier mentioned earlier says all the historians of the time mention Caesar crossing the Rubicon, not stating that these historians of the time wrote at least a century later.

Is there anyone in history with so little contemporaneous attestation who is nevertheless seen by millions as having really existed? There is of course Socrates, but of course we have a historical figure, Plato, who attests to his existence. Yet even that is overlain with a patina of mythicism, and I don’t think most scholars would say that Socrates existed with the certainty that Christians (or even atheists like Bart Ehrman) would say that Jesus existed. And there’s no religion based on the historical existence of Socrates. As for Shakespeare, well, we have his signature and a fair amount of contemporaneous evidence that he really did exist; we just don’t know for sure that he wrote those plays (absence of evidence).

Yes. Boudica. Hannibal. Arminius. The list could go on. All Coyne needed to do was just send an email to a professor of ancient history. It would be nice if someone at the University of Chicago where Coyne teaches who teaches ancient history could go and set Coyne straight. He’s not doing any favors to your university right now.

At the end, I do not have any questions about Jesus’s existence. I stand in agreement with the scholars in the field today that he definitely walked. I have a lot of questions about the evidence that Jerry Coyne is a serious thinker in any sense of the word.

In Christ,
Nick Peters