Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible History, Bible Study, Christianity, Historical Jesus

Some Thoughts on Josephus, Jesus, and John the Baptist

Many people are aware that Josephus, a Jewish historian from the late first century, mentions Jesus Christ. In fact, it’s often used as evidence that Jesus really existed. Of course, many of those same people are also aware that Josephus’s most detailed mention of Jesus, called the Testimonium Flavianum, has been embellished by a later Christian (perhaps Eusebius?). We know this because the passage says a number of things that no non-Christian would say, and Josephus was definitely not a Christian. Here it is:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3

I’ve highlighted the most suspicious phrases. There are different views on how much of the passage is authentic, but most scholars do think that Josephus wrote something about Jesus here. In part, this is because of a later passage that references Jesus in a way that indicates Josephus had already introduced him in some way:

…so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others…
Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, 1

In 1971, the scholar Shlomo Pines directed people to a version of the Testimonium Flavianum found in a 10th century text from Asia Minor:

At this time there was a wise man called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous [or: his learning/knowledge was outstanding]. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
— John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p. 373

This version seems much more in line with what you’d expect from a non-Christian historian, and it may be more in line with what Josephus actually wrote. However, you’ve noticed that portions of this are highlighted as well, and those areas represent phrases that still could have been inserted by later Christians. Or to state that more accurately, it may be the result of Christians fixing the initial additions so they aren’t so glaring. They certainly would have had opportunity, since this text was maintained by Christian scribes.

Anyway, while I find all that interesting, it’s not the main thing I wanted to talk about. I’ve known the preceding information for quite a while. But I’ve recently been reading Crossan’s book The Historical Jesus, and he happened to quote something else from Josephus that I found fascinating. Josephus writes a bit about John the Baptist, and while it’s a little lengthy, I’d like to quote the whole thing here:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.

Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.

Accordingly John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death. Now the Jews thought that the destruction of his army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure with him.
Jewish Antiquities, 18.116-119

I find it really interesting that Josephus has so much to say about John the Baptist, especially compared to how little he really says about Jesus. The emphasis seems flipped. The gospels portray John as someone who’s paving the way for Jesus. In fact, we’re led to believe that the coming of Jesus is almost the entirety of his message, but there’s no hint of that from Josephus. There’s no connection at all between the two men, as far as Josephus is concerned.

That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But if Jesus had really been divine, if he had really performed miracles too numerous to count (John 21:25), if he had fed and talked to many multitudes, and if his fame had spread around the region (Mark 1:28, etc), why wouldn’t Josephus have written more about him, especially since he was so aware of John the Baptist?

Anyway, I just found this interesting. I’d love to hear what you guys think. Am I making too much of this, or does it strike you as weird too?

1: Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p 373
2:, Josephus on John the Baptist
3:, Josephus on Jesus


31 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Josephus, Jesus, and John the Baptist”

  1. Hi Nate, nice to see you back! I’ll start the ball rolling. The scholars I have read say it all depends on the author’s purpose. Josephus was writing (in part) to try to smooth over relations between Jews and Rome, so he mentioned those things that seemed important to him. For example, the second reference to Jesus and his brother James was written not to talk about Jesus, but to talk about James and more importantly, how the murder of James had an adverse effect on relations between Rome and the high priestly family. Roman, and semi-Roman historians were interested in affairs of state, not some rumours about strange deeds in a backwater of the empire.

    We must remember too that only a small fraction (some say maybe only 1% or 2%) of writings and artefacts survive until today – the gospels are an exception because there was a clear motive to preserve them and plenty of copies. So we can’t draw too many conclusions from the statistics of what survives.

    How do you find Crossan? He was a much favoured author and scholar a decade or two ago, but seems now to be out of favour. Certainly some of his theses (Jesus the cynic) are not much accepted these days. One other scholar wrote that he is a delightful writer but almost totally wrong. I’ve only skim read one of his books. What do you think?


  2. My initial thoughts regarding Josephus is along the lines of, “so what?” And I don’t mean that as flippant as it sounds, but whether Josephus was a Christian, or a non-christian, whether he wrote about Jesus one way or another way, doesn’t change the fact that Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus, and would have had zero first hand knowledge of the man Jesus.

    The point is that Josephus could only write about what he heard and what he thought based upon that hearsay, as he had no first hand experiences or witness to any of it; no miracles, no death, no resurrection, no voices from heaven or dead men walking around Jerusalem… but only the presence of some zealous believers.

    If that “proves” a religion, the Islam is looking pretty legit.

    It’s like taking an article about the Heaven’s Gate cult and using that to someone suggest or validate the cult’s legitimacy.

    I don’t understand it.


  3. I think the Testamonium is an interpolation in its entirety. If you look at the previous paragraphs and the subsequent ones in Josephus, the T is clearly jammed in between those passages which are linked, except for the T being shoved into place.

    The larger issue is why an all-powerful god would appear to a barely literate culture. If He had gone to China, he would have been surround by hundreds of scribes writing down His every word. Even Muhammad did a better job of recording what he had been told. Why are we debating the evidence for an historical figure who could announce himself by speaking to our minds directly … all of our minds.

    As always we let our imaginations out run our good sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nate , great to see you back.

    I have probably listed to too many talks by David Fitzgerald to be objective on this matter. But It is virtually inconceivable that Josephus would have called Jesus the Messiah as it goes against everything else he wrote.

    Fitzgerald fingers that figure from history who makes Niccolò Machiavelli seem a naive honest broker by comparison, Eusebius of Nicomedia, as a prime suspect in the drama.

    It seems it was from his copy of Josephus’ work that the references to Jesus emerge. Prior Christian figures such as Origen (from whom Eusebius inherited his copy of Josephus’ works) note that Josephus mentions John the Baptist and bemoans the lack of references to Jesus.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hey Nate,

    Welcome back!

    I’m not sure if we could draw huge conclusions from just that, but it’s definitely a good point to think about. I think it fits into a more general fact that we’ve got very little information about Jesus outside of the sources written by the people whose purpose was to spread their belief system. It doesn’t seem consistent at all with a belief that Jesus was an all powerful god who came to earth as a person to perform the most important event of all time so that he could have a relationship with us all.

    Unklee has a good point – very little from that period survived. While it may not be the point he’s trying to make, I think that fact makes it very hard to form very strong beliefs related to a small cult that existed during that time period. Not only very little survived, we know that what did was modified to suit the particular beliefs of the writers, and the writers of that day had much less respect for objective history than we do today. The truth surrounding the small religions of that time period just seems too elusive to form an entire worldview around.

    Another interesting point here – it’s clear that the Jesus cult of that day was a very small percentage of the world population during that time period. It’s hard to count how many times I’ve heard Christian apologists say that they don’t need to research small religions of today because they believe any god who cared about us wouldn’t hide in a small religion. Those two things have always seemed a bit contradictory to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Peter, I hate to be picky, but I think maybe you have listened to much to David Fitzgerald and not checked the facts. I may be guilty of the same thing, but I draw your attention to a review of Fitzgerald’s book Nailed by fellow atheist but anti Jesus myther, Tim O’Neill. Here is an extended quote:

    “Not content with ignoring inconvenient key counter-evidence, Fitzgerald is also happy to simply make things up. He talks about how the Second Century Christian apologist Origen does not mention the Antiquities XVII.3.4 reference to Jesus (which is true, but not surprising) and then claims “Origen even quotes from Antiquities of the Jews in order to prove the historical existence of John the Baptist, then adds that Josephus didn’t believe in Jesus, and criticises him for failing to mention Jesus in that book!” (p. 53) Which might sound like a good argument to anyone who does not bother to check self-published authors’ citations. But those who do will turn to Origen’s Contra Celsum I.4 and find the following:

    Now this writer [Josephus], although not believing in Jesus as the Messiah, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth-that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was “the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah”,–the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice.

    So Origen does not say Josephus “didn’t believe in Jesus”, just that he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah (which supports the Arabic and Syriac evidence on the pre-interpolation version of Antiquities XVII.3.4) And far from criticising Josephus “for failing to mention Jesus in that book”, Origen actually quotes Josephus directly doing exactly that – the phrase “αδελφος Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου” (the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah”) is word for word the phrase used by Josephus in his other mention of Jesus, found at Antiquities XX.9.1. And he does not refer to and quote Josephus mentioning Jesus just in Contra Celsum I.4, but he also does so twice more: in Contra Celsum II:13 and in Commentarium in evangelium Matthaei X.17. It is hard to say if this nonsense claim of Fitzgerald’s is mere incompetence or simply a lie. I will be charitable and put it down to another of this amateur’s bungles.”

    Now if Tim is correct (I don’t know how to check, but I have had several discussions with him and have read a lot of his writing, and he is generally careful about his quotations), then Fitzgerald has either invented or continued an internet myth. (The discussion with Fitzgerald continues on, with both replying to each other at least once, but the above quote seems to remain correct.)

    I’m not really interested in arguing the general case of Josephus and Jesus, but I think you will agree that total misunderstandings, as this appears to be, need to be recognised. Thanks.


  7. Thanks UnkleE for that information I will need to look into it further.

    We do at least agree on one matter which is that it is unlikely Josephus would have thought of Jesus as the Messiah.


  8. @William

    I think Nate’s main point is why Josephus wrote much more about John the Baptist and not much about Jesus. This is interesting because the Gospel basically wrote that Jesus trump John, and Jesus converting John the Baptist’s disciples into his.

    My gut feel from reading all these suggest to me that there might have been 2 main sects during that era – one belonging to Jesus and one belonging to John. Of course as the Gospels are written by Jesus’s sect, it is clear that they would want to write it such that Jesus is better and the correct guy to follow, while at the same time saying John was preparing the way for Jesus so as not to incite too much ill-feeling among John’s disciples that are definitely still alive. You know, kinda like Koran acknowledging Jesus as a prophet but saying Mohammad is better.

    I mean, you look across the 4 gospels, it seems that John didn’t even know who Jesus was when he was in prison. However when he baptized Jesus he knew that Jesus is the son of God.

    All these sound like embellishment to the nth degree.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. powellpowers,

    I think you’re correct. I was just trying to say that I don’t understand people pointing to Josephus as some proof of Jesus by any stretch. I get nate’s points and I think they’re good ones to consider, and I totally see where he’s coming from.

    I didnt mean “so what” in regard to nate’s point, but “so what” to Josephus as it relates to the accuracy of the Jesus tale in general.

    It’s just that whether he actually said a lot or a little doesn’t change the fact that he only knew what other claims (whether he believed any of it or not himself), and couldn’t have reported on any first hand knowledge. But besides that, as nate pointed out, there are still some suspect issues within what is credited to Josephus anyways.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hey guys! Thanks for the comments 🙂

    @unkleE —
    Great points about Josephus’s intent — thanks for sharing those. I’m almost finished with Crossan’s book, and I have mixed feelings about it. First of all, I’m not an expert on the research about the historical Jesus, so I can’t really comment on how accurate he might be. I can say that he’s very clear in making distinctions about what is fact, what is his own opinion, and what the opinions of some others are. He also spends a lot of time discussing his methodology. So I appreciated that kind of transparency. The first half of this book deals with the social climate leading up to the time of Christ, which was very interesting to me.

    His writing style is a little academic. Not the worst I’ve read, but certainly not the best. So I find myself re-reading certain sections multiple times trying to let them sink in, either because they aren’t very clear, or because my mind was wandering. I also wish he included more quotes instead of just references, because I’m not always around a Bible. That’s really just laziness on my part though.

    Really, I’m just delving into some of the perspectives on the historical Jesus, and this seemed like a good place to start. I found this book and the book Jesus by Marcus Borg at a used book store, so there you go. 🙂 I plan to read Borg’s book next.

    @william —
    Josephus is interesting, but I do agree with your overall point. His writings should certainly be considered as potential evidence for the historical Jesus, but he wasn’t really in a position to actually know. At best, it shows that there were Christians during his lifetime, and I don’t think anyone denies that.

    @steve —

    The larger issue is why an all-powerful god would appear to a barely literate culture… Why are we debating the evidence for an historical figure who could announce himself by speaking to our minds directly … all of our minds.

    Yep! 🙂

    @Peter —
    Thanks for the welcome back, and thanks for posting that info from Fitzgerald. I found your discussion with unkleE really interesting, so thanks to both of you!

    @Howie —
    Thanks for the great comment! I was going to try to pull out something specific that you said and comment on it, but there’s not much for me to say — I agree with everything you wrote!

    @powell —
    Thanks for the comment. Your points about Jesus and John are really insightful. I don’t have Crossan’s book in front of me right now, but if I remember correctly, he suggests that the connection between Jesus and John was a later embellishment by Jesus’s early followers. He may think that Jesus was actually baptized by John, but I don’t think he believes that they had a close relationship. And as you pointed out, John 1:33 can be read as saying that they didn’t know each other. I’ll go back and look at what Crossan had to say about it when I have time and leave a follow up comment.


  11. The debate with Josephus falls into camps – either historians think it’s completely fake, completely real, or they subscribe to “partial interpolation theory” (which I call “wishful thinking”).

    RE: John the Baptist – have you seen this Ken Humphries video?
    Main takeaway: The historicity of John the Baptist in Josephus doesn’t line up with the Jesus timeline.


  12. Thanks, Tim! I’ll have to check out the video. I’ve read that there’s disagreement between Josephus’s timeline about John vs the gospels’, but I don’t know much about it. Sounds interesting.


  13. UnkleE, one matter I have confirmed is that there is not much good will between David Fitzgerald and Tim O’Neill. But leaving aside mutual character assassination, I did note one particular paragraph in David Fitzgerald’s detailed response to Tim O’Neill, that Fitzgerald offers a mea culpa of sorts:

    First, I must confess that I never meant to imply that Origen said Josephus “didn’t believe in Jesus” in the sense of Jesus not existing – I certainly don’t think that’s the case. That was an unfortunate and very poorly tempered sentence on my part; and painful as it is to give such a douche a bone, I have to say I totally agree with O’Neill’s criticism of it. Origen is chiding Josephus here for being a Jew, not for denying Jesus’ historicity. In fact, Josephus shows no sign of ever having even heard of Jesus at all, which is the reason Eusebius inserted his forged Testimonium into Antiquities in the first place.

    The full response can be found here:

    Looking at a site dedicated to the works of Josephus
    I found the following reference:

    …c. 230-250
    The Christian writer Origen cites Josephus’ section on the death of James “the brother of Jesus” in Book 20 of the Antiquities; but states Josephus did not believe in Jesus, and does not cite the TF passage in Book 18.

    c. 324
    Eusebius quotes the TF in full, in the form that survives today in all manuscripts.

    10th Century
    The Arab historian Agapius quotes a version of the TF that differs from that of Eusebius. It does not have the most obvious Christian elements. However, this version will be lost to scholarship until 1971…

    Anyway UnkleE the O’Neill/Fitzgerald feud shows that internecine atheist feuds can be every bit as nasty as similar feuds in Christian circles.

    Anyway I have not yet reached a conclusion on my research into this matter. Perhaps I would have been better off focussing on Nate’s post being about John the Baptist.


  14. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your further comments. Yes, I don’t enjoy the sort of discussion between O’Neill and Fitzgerald, so I didn’t read it in full, and I didn’t see that Fitzgerald withdrew some of his claims. And I note that this includes something close to the comment which you originally referenced.

    I hope you don’t mind me tacking on a further comment here. I want to make clear at the start that it isn’t directed at you, nor at Nate, but may apply to people you both take some notice of.

    There are very few scholars who believe the Josephus reference to Jesus is totally genuine. If I as a christian put forward the argument that the reference was totally genuine, I think I would be mocked.

    Yet sceptics quite happily suggest the reference is totally false, despite these summaries of scholarly conclusions (I can give links if you want but I won’t bother now):

    * Louis Feldman surveyed 52 scholars writing up to 1980, and found 39 thought it was at least partly authentic (enough to establish Jesus’ existence), only 4 of these found it fully genuine, while 13 thought it fully false. That’s 75% in favour.

    * Peter Kirby reviewed 13 further writers since then and found 10 for partial authenticity, and only 3 for full inauthenticity – and they were all Jesus-mythers!

    * The names of scholars who hold to partial authenticity include such eminent names as Geza Vermes, JD Crossan, EP Sanders, Robert Van Voorst, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen, John Meier.

    * Possibly the latest review of the question, which seems to be pretty influential, is Alice Whealey (2008) who concluded: “Indeed, the evidence of Michael the Syrian’s Testimonium, used in conjunction with the evidence of Jerome’s Testimonium, indicates that the only major alteration that has been made to Josephus’ original passage about Jesus is the alteration of the phrase ‘he was thought to be the Messiah’ to the textus receptus phrase ‘he was the Messiah’.”

    If the sceptics were to use the same standards they expect of the christians, this would be an open-and-shut case. Josephus did indeed mention Jesus and tell us some useful confirmatory facts. So I wonder how any sceptic justifies this amazingly keen effort to somehow disparage this conclusion.

    You are a reasonable sceptic, how do you explain that?


  15. Hi unkleE,

    Your comment was addressed more toward Peter than me, but I’ll offer some thoughts anyway.

    First off, I also find it problematic for people to insist that the whole TF was inserted by Eusebius and that Josephus knew nothing at all about Jesus as though that’s a fact. But I would also have problems saying that Josephus definitely did talk about Jesus as though that’s a fact. It seems to me that one should be open to both possibilities, even if he/she leans heavily to one vs the other.

    If there were no reasons to suspect the passage, then I think the mythicists would be in a worse position. But virtually everyone agrees that the passage has been tampered with by looking at the internal consistency of it and by noting variations in Michael the Syrian’s text as well as considering when and how the quote was used by early Christians. So now it’s just a question of how much it was tampered with.

    Currently, I lean toward the position that Josephus did write something there, but I’m no expert at all. So I mostly lean that direction because it’s the current scholarly consensus. The mythicists who hold that Josephus wrote nothing there are coming at their conclusion for other lines of evidence that they find compelling, not necessarily because of something in the TF itself. I don’t really see that as a problem.

    While I do think consensus is important, we all know of occasions when the consensus has been proven wrong, and so the experts’ opinions gradually shift to the new understanding. I’m not saying that things will play out that way for mythicism, but I also wouldn’t completely discount it.

    In the end, I think it all comes down to why the various groups think the way they do. What are their reasons? Their lines of evidence? So are there particular pieces of evidence that you think the mythicists are ignoring? And this is not a baiting question, btw. I really don’t know much about this subject, so I’m genuinely curious.



  16. UnkleE at the risk of sidetracking things even more, I think it is worth passing on some thoughts I have on the Jesus mythicist theory.

    I have been interested in this theory because I had never even heard anyone raise it as a theory when I still called myself a Christian. Since then I have realised that it has become popular in some circles, but also give rise heightened emotions in academic circles.

    I don’t think the theory is correct for one primary reason, which is that if Jesus was a made up figure why would there be so many inconvenient issues in the backstory we know have. What I mean by inconvenient issues are matters such as Jesus being born in Jerusalem but raised in Nazareth and also the leader of the Jerusalem church appearing to the James the brother of Jesus rather than Peter the apostle.

    I also would like to endorse Nate’s response.

    I wish there was more certainty on these matters. I am a person who by nature tends to be trusting and, dare I say, somewhat naive. My start on the road to losing faith was studying Christian history in 2013. My rather trusting and naive view of how Christians acted was shown to be at odds with history.


  17. As Josephus didn’t write the ”extended version”, and the passage wasn’t mentioned at all by any known scholar before (” Would I lie to you?”) Eusebius why should the shortened version be given any credit?|

    The preceding parts of the text and the parts that immediately follow make a lot more sense without any of the TF which simply looks like an interpolation when taken in context.

    By clinging to a least a smidgen of the TF scholars have what they consider something to base an historical Jesus, being too afraid to deny his historicity altogether for fear of ridicule.


  18. Oh, and unklee’s 3/10 writers are ”Mythers” is the type of snide comment that makes one want to gag.
    Do any those who deny any historicity to the character Jesus of Nazareth happen to have any qualifications? Maybe a PHD for example?


  19. Hi Nate, hi Peter,

    We recognise that very little we “know” is certain. We are in a sense prisoners of our own brains and senses, and they “could” be fooling us. For practical purposes we ignore that rather theoretical “problem”.

    But still, very little is certain. Memory fails us sometimes. Science generally provides information to some specified level of accuracy, and is always open to correction by new data. Courts ask for a conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. We choose how we vote, who we marry, our career our likes and our ethics without anything near certainty.

    So history is just the same. Less certain than most science, probably more certain than our choice of politics or a partner. Of course recent history is more certain, though even then we still have holocaust deniers. So what should we do? We could decide we can’t believe any history, but that would impoverish us and would be practically impossible, because in a sense everything in the past is “history”, even 1 minute ago. So mostly we do the same as we do for sense experience – we make the pragmatic choice to accept what is most likely and adjust if necessary.

    So we don’t doubt the broad scope of history, and we provisionally accept details that have reasonable support.

    So why be different about Josephus, or Jesus? The scholars are becoming pretty sure that we have a good understanding of what Josephus wrote and what was interpolated, though there is of course some uncertainty. Josephus’ writings are well preserved and can be cross checked with others, and he is known to be a reasonably reliable historian, and his biases are known. To be consistent we should either trust the scholars, who tell us the interpolations are not major, or else mistrust the scholars, in which case we have no basis to say there are any interpolations at all.

    I can understand those of you who say that you accept that Jesus lived and the gospels tell us a lot about his life, but you don’t find enough evidence to believe he was son of God etc. But to disregard scholarship and express doubts about whether he lived (typically many atheists say very grudgingly, “I believe there was probably a man named Jesus back then”, when the secular scholars say much more than that!) and whether the scholars are right about Josephus, seems to me to be anti-rational and just what you criticise christians for. I am willing to base discussion on the consensus of secular scholars, and I think for atheists not to do the same is inconsistent.

    Sorry to be so direct, but it happens so often.


  20. Hi Peter,

    “I wish there was more certainty on these matters. I am a person who by nature tends to be trusting and, dare I say, somewhat naive. My start on the road to losing faith was studying Christian history in 2013. My rather trusting and naive view of how Christians acted was shown to be at odds with history.”

    I wanted to address this comment separately. I am sorry you feel somewhat disillusioned. I think I would feel similarly to you and Nate and others if I had the same experiences, and I recognise it is a difficult path to walk. I think christian teachers, in the US in particular, but elsewhere too, have too often failed to be as honest with themselves and their hearers as they should have been, and I think in the end that leads to some christians being closed minded and others quitting, as you and Nate have done.

    But there is a growing movement in christianity to be open to the evidence and honest about dealing with it. People like CS Lewis, NT Wright, Francis Collins, Peter Enns, Dennis Lamoureux, Rob Bell and many others in various ways and times are having an influence.

    We can each only conclude as best we can, deciding which of the alternatives is most probable. I hope you can put that unfortunate experience behind you and consider the case for christianity as presented by these more “enlightened” christians rather than the “obscurantist” ones you may have experienced in the past. It may not change your conclusion, but it may give you more respect for the viewpoint you reject.


  21. unkleE,

    A famous man once said:

    If a person never contradicts himself, it must be that he says nothing.

    I agree and I’m sure all of us have been inconsistent many times. In fact, I see some inconsistency in your comment here. On the one hand you agree that not all consensus is the same, that consensus in history is less sure than consensus in science, ancient history is less sure than more recent history (and might even agree that ancient history studied by theologians is even less sure than ancient history studied by people actually fully degreed in ancient history). But then on the other hand you chide Nate and Peter for not holding to the exact same level of confidence in the conclusions of consensus across these fields. It’s not apples to apples unkleE , so I think you are being too black and white here and your lectures are inconsistent.

    I’ve read in several places that the neuroscientific consensus is that consciousness depends on brains for it’s existence and does not survive death. But perhaps you could give reasons a, b, and c for why that type of consensus is different. Actually I totally agree with that. Consensus about afterlife to me is not apples to apples with consensus on other scientific conclusions so I don’t hold the neuroscientific consensus on that with very high confidence myself, although the reasons why they conclude that are the same reasons why I tend to lean toward not believing in afterlife. The reasons are important as well in all of these discussions. It can’t only be about consensus although consensus for sure is important for laypeople like us, so I actually don’t disagree with you on this as much as it may seem. I just think you could approach this with a little more understanding.

    Which brings me to my own approach toward this. I’ll explain with an example. Several years ago a Christian friend of mine at work was discussing evolution with a group of us. He said that he knew what the consensus was on evolution but that every book that he read on the subject only said “there is consensus on common descent” and he said that they never actually gave the reasons why that was the consensus. I told him that I couldn’t blame him for feeling that way given what he had read. I also told him that I wasn’t all that sure about common descent myself (and I had been an atheist for about 15 years at that point) mainly because I hadn’t read enough about it. We all agreed though that the consensus of science did make it hard to have very high confidence against it without fully understanding all the issues, and especially hard as well to make people feel guilty for agreeing with common descent. Fast forward about a year and without my influence at all (honestly) my friend changed his mind mainly because he had actually found reputable sources describing the actual reasons for the consensus about common descent.

    Oh, and write me down for very comfortably saying that I believe that Jesus was a man of history and if it turns out that he still exists as a truly good and loving God waiting to give me a warm welcoming hug after I die then I would be happily comforted. (And you already know that I don’t believe that eternal conscious torment or the atrocities in the bible would line up with “truly good and loving”, and you know as well that I agree with you that those could possibly be incorrect understandings of your worldview, but I want to include that caveat for others who may be reading)

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Hi Howie, I hope I didn’t offend you with anything I said.

    I make no claim to be totally consistent. I try to be logical and consistent, but errare humanum est.

    “you chide Nate and Peter for not holding to the exact same level of confidence in the conclusions of consensus across these fields”

    I certainly didn’t intend to say that, and I don’t think I did say that. What I suggested we should do is “make the pragmatic choice to accept what is most likely and adjust if necessary”. This says nothing about “the same level of confidence”, but instead talks about the same principle – to follow the most probable option even if the level of confidence isn’t the same.

    So if the experts are generally convinced, on good grounds that they can explain, that Josephus did indeed refer to Jesus, then the fact that we may have lower confidence in this statement than in the statement that the earth orbits around the sun, doesn’t alter the fact that both statements are the most likely explanation of the evidence. And so should be accepted. of course we will make appropriate comments about lack of certainty. But what I suggest is inconsistent is refusing to endorse the statement that is the most probable.


  23. @unklee

    But what I suggest is inconsistent is refusing to endorse the statement that is the most probable.

    Then based on this statement, you will acknowledge and endorse that the biblical character Moses, the Egyptian captivity, Exodus and conquest are nothing but historical fiction, as this is the view – based on evidence – that is held by the majority of archaeologists and scholars.


  24. I am willing to base discussion on the consensus of secular scholars, and I think for atheists not to do the same is inconsistent.

    Sorry to be so direct, but it happens so often.


    William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of the historicity of Exodus “dead.” Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus: “The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction—made in the seventh century [BCE]—of a history that never happened.”[5]

    So, tell me,how does this square away with the biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth, believing that Moses was a real, historical person?

    Was he either unaware of the history of his people or that Moses was simply made up; a myth was he delusional or lying … or is he too nothing but a narrative construct?



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