|The God Who Wasn't There: A Critique|
When readers asked me to look into the new DVD The God Who Wasn't There, I expected the film to be a somewhat scholarly (as far as these guys can get) review of the best case for the Christ myth. That isn't what I found.
20% of the film is a documentary on Earl Doherty's Christ myth theory (though Doherty does not appear in the main film) which we have addressed here.
20% is "pagan copycat" arguments (it actually makes use of Graves' "16 Crucified Saviors" list as well as the Freke-Gandy "crucified Bacchus" forgery -- see our series here).
20% is objecting to the religious right. 10% is objecting to how bloody "The Passion" was.
And the remaining 30%? It consists of Flemming mourning his prior fundamentalist upbringing, to the point of him childishly ending the film in the chapel he was "saved" in and declaring his apostasy there.
It is clear Flemming is "on a mission" and will do anything to accomplish it. He apparently lied to his former school principal about the purpose of his interview with him. In April 2006 he orchestrated a "War on Easter" in which his fans left copies of the DVD and other related material into churches. A total of 666 DVDs were to be distributed this way. This might be acceptable if the scholarship in the film were good, but that is precisely the problem -- it isn't.
I rather wonder if some of his interviewees (like Richard Carrier) know they were being used in a film that gave Graves' crucified saviors list a highlight. One of the links below notes that Flemming offers conclusions that Carrier in particular otherwise disagrees with (such as that Nazareth did not exist), which would be fine except that Flemming is offering a strongly counter-consensus position in which he'll need a solid and consistent mode of defense.
There are also a mix of arguments we address elsewhere: late dates for the Gospels; Marcan priority and Q; appeal to the Sanhedrin trying Jesus at night, and especially use of Doherty's "silence" argument.
Flemming has stated that the reaction of the church to the film has been to ignore it and hope it will go away. In that case, where is Flemming with his replies to all this that we've refuted before? He claims that there has been no reply to Earl Doherty's Jesus Puzzle. Oh, no? We have.
Rather dishonest were Flemming's "Christian on the street" interviews in which he asked people if they had ever heard of Mithra, Attis, etc. (under the assumption that his material from the likes of Graves was accurate). I really wish he'd run into some Tekton readers instead, but I expect he would have edited all of that out.
Flemming seems to have been particularly bothered by dispensational eschatology, which leads me to wonder what he'd have to say to to a preterist.
Is this film a threat? Not hardly.Flemming would never survive debate with an informed Christian. But if you still want some resources, here are two in particular:
I will provide my own guide to the film below.
The film comes in 22 chapters.
1 -- The Earth and the Sun. The message: Christianity was wrong about the sun revolving around the earth (heliocentrism). Maybe it's wrong about other things too.
This is exceptionally poor logic, which boils down to:
By this token, one may as well forge the same chain of logic, thusly:
Or how about:
Is this acceptable logic? No, it is not. For more about the background of the debate re Galileo, see here.
2 - The Faces of Christianity. Mike Licona's retort here is sufficient:
.... one may answer Flemming by noting that a philosophy should not be judged by its abuse. One could make a similar apologetic against atheism by naming atheists like Stalin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge who were responsible for the killing fields of Cambodia. Every one of these despots and brutal governments embraced atheism and oppressed people. One could easily produce a “documentary” showing Flemming and his guests smiling and happy with their atheism, then turn to photographs of Stalin who killed 7 million, Pol Pot who killed 1.2 million, and of course Mao who killed more than 70 million. This is certainly a mixed bag. However, this would do nothing to prove atheism wrong.
Tellingly, this most critical point made by Licona is virtually ignored by Doherty in his response, where he says:
If the representatives of that Deity, whether priest, televangelist or faith healer, can regularly be found guilty of child abuse, avarice or fraud, then one can hardly tout Christianity as the one effective guide and guarantor of proper moral behavior. Any philosophy, no matter what it may claim for itself in principle, is only as good as it works in practice. Christianity's track record gives us no reason to regard it as occupying a privileged position in regard to divine benefaction, and in that respect Licona's implication (if inadvertent) that we should regard it as part of a level playing-field is entirely correct.
But this merely dodges the issue of whether X philosophy IS being practiced in fact. We do not even need to go into the issue of the moral values that result from atheism in depth to know that Flemming's presentation in this section is dishonest.
Tellingly, Doherty does not quote this point by Licona (which is really the only criticism directed to the film itself), much less rebut it. It is Flemming's burden to show that eg, David Koresh was a viable exegete of the texts he used; that he used texts authoritatively, and so on.
3 - The Story of Jesus -- Not much here to comment on; Flemming offers mostly description, and no argument as such (beyond the implied anamoly of a lack of description of Jesus' life between 12 and 30, answered by the point that ancient biographies usually covered little or none of a person's childhood or life for that period -- see on this the May-June 2009 edition of the E-Block).
Flemming apparently thinks the "three" magi are in the Bible (it nowhere says there were three).
4 - What Happened Next? -- This begins the case of the film, and it should be noted in fairness that not too much may be expected from a case made in summary (versus detailed interviews also on the DVD, though even those end up lacking depth).
Flemming offers "man on the street" interviews that ask Christians how Christianity spread and poses astonishment at the explanations lacking in substance. One wonders why it didn't occur to him to interview credible scholars like Witherington or Wright, especially since he deigned to interview scholars (to some extent) for support of his view.
It is, that said, only "hard" to answer the questions posed, if only because the questions asked were far from specific. What does Flemming want? An account of the social factors that accompanied the mission work of Christianity? A method guide to how preaching and teaching was done? Flemming apparently doesn't know how to ask good questions, because after this the subject turns to the matter of the NT record (so why isn't Flemming asking people what the dates of the Gospels were, for example?).
And here it is simply a summary case offered, claims without backup (as noted, not necessarily unfair for a film with time limits imposed), and so all we offer is our reply material:
In close, it is disingenuous as well for Flemming to claim that Christians don't "talk about" what he alleges to be problems. If he had any familiarity at all with the range of scholarship available (our links above give examples in the bibliographies) he would not say such things.
5 - Fact vs. Fiction -- This portion offers three interviews. Only the third approaches what could be called "argument" stage.
6 - Urban Legends The point of this section is apparently to vaguely instill doubts about the nature of the story of Jesus by saying, "Look, here is proof urban legends happen. So this could be one too." In essence this is the same logical smokescreen used in part 1. Flemming makes no effort to look at Christianity in its social context (as we do here) or to actually prove that any part of the story is an "urban legend" or to show that such legends in particular would be easily accepted (they would not be).
Notably he couldn't (apparently) get the masters of snopes.com to say such a thing about Christianity. Perhaps Flemming would also like not to mention that snopes.com often confirms stories as well as debunking them. So is it sufficient answer for us to point to their examples of verified stories and say, "therefore this is what Christianity is"?
7 - Hero Pattern -- Licona addresses this in some detail (see also our reply to Doherty) so we'll leave it at that, other than pointing also to an item here by a scholar of classics who explains why Raglan is out of date.
8 - Pagan Saviors/ 9- Satan Did It/ 10 -- Christians Don't Know -- Flemming makes use of Graves' "16 Crucified Saviors" list and the crucified Orpheus icon, both of which are highly questionable and in the latter case is a known forgery. On Justin Martyr see GDon's comments here. Please note how badly Justin's comments are misused in the context of his entire arguments.
And no, contrary to Flemming, "Satan did it" is not "the explanation to this day". See our series on each "pagan savior" here. Flemming also dishonestly interviews everyday Christians again -- why not scholars instead? Why not indeed, we at this site?
Flemming lists characteristics of "savior gods" in the foreground and shows Graves' list in the background, but does not connect any names and deeds together. We'd like to see him try.
11 - It's About Blood/ 12 - The Passion -- The one bit of serious data that needs to be pointed out here is related to the description of humanity as "obsessed" with blood sacrifice. It is illicit to collapse down all varieties of ritual with their meaning and lump them into a broad category of "blood sacrifice." Are the meanings and modes of all of these rituals the same? Flemming makes no effort to show that this is the case, but merely counterposes a depiction of what appears to be an Aztec sacrifice with the crucifixion.
The reason blood plays such an important role in so many varied rituals is likely because it is the one thing (other than skin) that best represents the whole of the human body and the life within it as a totality. One may as well reply that it is Flemming who are "obsessed" with blood, in the sense of being afraid of it. Why should anything be different simply because of the fears of a few?
Objections about The Passion are of little substance. Let it be said for the record that I was not impressed by it myself (blood is not the true focus of the historical event anyway; see here), but the film was reasonably accurate historically in terms of what crucifixion victims actually went through, and if Flemming has an issue with that, why isn't he crusading against gory Hollywood endeavors as well?
At least The Passion was graphic out of a reasonable attempt at faithful representation to history and what a crucifixion was like. The older Jesus movies Flemming uses, such as the one with Jesus having his face whipped with what look to be large drinking straws, aren't realistic portrayals of the ways Romans handled prisoners. To say that Gibson "could have made it any way he wanted to" is beside the point (though it does reflect well Flemming's obvious inclination to "make what he wants" of his own film, including errors).
13 - Soldiers for God -- This rather peculiar section didn't affect me as someone who is a registered independent and whose political views match no party that I know of. Flemming had to reach way back to James Robison and Jerry Falwell in the 80s to invoke the spectre of the Religious Right (ironic to me, since the strongest Republican I have known personally is an atheist, and there do exist politically conservative atheists; Flemming even interviews "the Raving Atheist" and finds that where abortion is concerned, he is "pro-life").
The random montage of shots doesn't count for much in the way of "argument". The pictured book burning is not contextualized, so it is hard to say what the point is, but it seems to me that in a free country people should be allowed to express their freedom of speech by burning their own books, if that is what they are.
Richard Carrier is invoked for a view that religion is dangerous; the available crop of books like For the Glory of God and Christianity on Trial are good antidotes for a view like Carrier's, and let's always recall that the same can be said (with as much validity) of atheism, if we wish to keep the issue that simple. (In other words, it's as fallacious to use Stalin against atheism as it is for Flemming to do what he has done here).
It is hard to see what the point is of using the Force Ministries website. Essentially, Force Ministries is a military version of the Power Team, not any sort of Inquisition group. What does Flemming think this proves?
14 - Moderate Christianity -- Flemming never clearly defines what he means by "moderate Christianity" other than by the point of the OT penalty on homosexuals (on that issue of the relevance of the OT law, see here). Otherwise this section is a random pastiche of declarations with the apparent message of, "The Religious Right is bad."
Pictures of Bush, Abu Ghirbab, Luke 19:27 (see GDon's comments on Flemming's misuse of that), the Inquisition (far more complex than Flemming realizes), Bailey Smith's "God does not hear a prayer of a Jew" (just as the Hebrew Bible says of those that are disobedient, after all...), and all about NT anti-Semitism (actually, the average Jewish peasant of the day would have felt much the same about the ruling class).
15 - Rapture Ready/16 - Left Behind/ 17- Crazy -- As a preterist (that is, one who doesn't accept the idea of a Rapture as portrayed, or an upcoming Tribulation) I have no defense to offer here, or a need to defend, but I do have some comments. Why does Flemming choose to interview the likes of Scott Butcher, when scholars like Ken Gentry, Gary DeMar, Ben Witherington, or even John Walvoord are around? How does Harris' objection about eschatological beliefs being "maladaptive" square with Flemming's admission that Butcher is a nice guy and a productive member of his community who provides for his family?
18 -- School Daze -- Mostly a personal account of Flemming's former beliefs, with little or no explanation for how he arrived at them, much less any question as to whether maybe he had the basics wrong in the first place. His Dante-view of hell was certainly wrong, as was his idea of what constituted blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
19 -- The Superintendent/20 - Faith vs. Evidence/21 - We Need to Stop/ 22 - Chapel -- This is mostly the interview with Flemming's former school leader, Ronald Sipus; the fuller interview in the extras didn't add much, though I note that Flemming admits that he used it in spite of being told not to by Sipus. I do note that there is a false dichotomy between faith and evidence; not all Flemming's fault since he was taught wrongly.
It is also hypocritically ironic for Flemming to allege that the super is being "irresponsible" for teaching children Christian doctrines when his own film is full of so many irresponsible errors. In addition, why does he suggest a disclaimer ("we may be wrong") on the school's statement of faith, but not have such a disclaimer on his own film?
Full Interviews and Commentary Tracks.
PowerPoint extra. This is a slide show extra. It covers much the same ground as the film, but here are some added points that show that Flemming deserves no credibility as a commentator:
Special Appendix: Alan Dundes
We have an interesting investigation in process from one of our readers who was a student of the late Alan Dundes, who was featured in the film. We now have a full report here [Word document]. Otherwise here are some miscellaneous comments:
Some preliminary findings from my readings.
1. Alan Dundes was heavily misrepresented. There is no way that Dundes would try to show that Jesus was purely fabricated (I am intentionally avoiding the term "myth"). As a folklorist, his philosophy goes completely against the idea that folklore can be separated from history and thus he does not aim nor care whether Jesus was real or not....
2. Dundes should not have tried to apply the Bible in a folklore motif because of his lack of scholarship in the Biblical records and Biblical studies... For the record, Dundes was a secular Jew, and in one of his other papers, he believes that the Jewish people were completely obsessed with feces and that anal-feces-fetish was a sign of their legalism. David Biale of UC Davis, in the journal American Jewish History, completely blasts him:
American Jewish History, David Baile -- ...After some hesitations about whether one can speak of a "Jewish national character," Dundes - following Freud and Ferenczi - ventures the following: ". . . can a case be made . . . that the Jews do exhibit the personality characteristics that . . . could conceivably be called anal erotic in nature?" (100). The answer, of course, is yes, and Dundes proceeds to assemble every example of excrement in the Bible and Talmud. Feces is his thesis. The alleged Jewish preoccupation with cleanliness and purity "which borders on obsession, would seem to suggest an anal erotic origin. . ." (115). The strange passage in Exodus 33:22-23, where God shows Moses his backside, "is not merely an example of divine 'mooning,' but it is rather an image totally consonant with an anal erotic pattern of behavior and thought" (125)© source where applicable
3. From (a graduate student who more recently worked with Dundes): "I can tell you that AD was not concerned with whether Jesus was a real person or not -- I think we can safely say that we all agree he was an historical figure. As folklorists we are concerned with narrative development (among other things). Dundes was drawing on 'hero of tradition' scholarship and applying it to Jesus as it had been applied to Oedipus, Jason, Moses, Apollo, King Arthur etc. The hypothesis is that there are structural formulations that underlie heroic makeovers."
Some things in the responses I did not take account of, and I did not want to. One is the question of historicity, raised by Smith and Talbert. I have no position on historicity; structural analysis is irrelevent to history. Raglan had a different bias; he was interested in disproving the historicity of the lives of the heroes. The truth/falsehood issue concerned Murgia, among others. But to distinguish "true" heroes from "folk" heroes confirms my original point, that "folk" is always throught to be error. There is no way of knowing a priori whether a given individual is historical; that is a separate issue. Some people were concerned that I did not discuss the religiosity of the life of Jesus. Obviously, that is a very important issue, but again, here I take no position. Structural analysis per se says nothing about it, nor does psychoanalytic criticism. -- Alan Dundes, at the end of a booklet on a summit about one of his works
Flemming never got the attention he hoped to get for his film. The mainstream media seems to have ignored him. His "War on Easter" was staffed by persons of this sort, who commented on the War on Easter site:
We got an odd look from a police officer when we were sitting across the street from a playground in an old brown Chevy Celebrity with a bunch of easter eggs, flyers, and a lot of liquor in the back seat.
As one reader has put it, The God Who Wasn't There seems to be the Ishtar of atheism.
I challenged Flemming to debate me on the TheologyWeb forum, but he refused. Let's now chronicle some aspects of that.
The following is on an extended defense of his that appeared on a debate/blog with a fellow who calls himself "centuri0n" (and with whom, we have no dealings personally). We skip past two paragraphs of explanatory introduction and move to the meat:
PROBABILITY VS. CERTAINTY -- This section is partly non-controversial setup which we will not dispute in principle; eg, that probability can lead to a default for an argument. Otherwise Flemming plays the arrogance card:
In contrast, a fully indoctrinated member of a religious group does not consider evidence in this manner. An indoctrinated member of a religion takes the approach that the core assumptions of the religion are certainly true, and any argument against them must compete with presumed absolute certainty.
Let's turn that around and see if it works as an argument:
In contrast, a fully indoctrinated member of an atheist group does not consider evidence in this manner. An indoctrinated atheist takes the approach that the core assumptions of atheism are certainly true, and any argument against them must compete with presumed absolute certainty.
For example: A Christ-myther already knows that the core premises of his thesis are true. If you challenge a Christ-myther to demonstrate that their thesis is valid, the Christ-myther will demand that you prove it doesn't--and set the bar at an impossible height. The mythicist is already certain that Jesus did not exist, so he or she does not feel the need to examine the cases pro and con and evaluate the evidence according to what is most probable. Compared to certainty, probability means little.
The myther, when confronted by challenges to the core dogma of their thesis, defensively and irrationally respond by raising the bar. They win the argument ahead of time by demanding that all challenges compete with certainty.
I didn't prove a thing with this "argument" and neither did Flemming with his.
RAISING THE BAR -- Flemming's semantic evasion over differences between "similar to" and "derives from" and "blatantly plagiarizes" interests us little here. We do not demand Xerox-like similarity, but we do have scholarly standards of the sort Miller documents here. With those in mind, when will Flemming take up the gauntlet of challenges our series here offers? Or, will he say we are "raising the bar too high" by asking that he answer what is offered by credentialed scholars?
WHAT IS ENOUGH TO AROUSE SUSPICION? Flemming says, For the disinterested nonbeliever, it is clearly enough to arouse suspicion that the Jesus story is similar to prior god stories.
That much is true: For the usual "disinterested nonbeliever" hasn't done enough research to make an informed judgment about such things, and so they resort to the hasty conclusion that the other version "of the dying and rising god is most probably a fiction like all the others appear to be."
For the informed researcher, however, choice #3 is the most attractive: 3) The alleged similarities are overbroad, or else too late to be of relevance to comparison to Jesus.
It speaks for itself that Flemming appeals vaguely to "an urge to tell this timeless tale" and of an "apparent psychological need" which he has no documentation for. It is also a poor substitute for actually dealing in specifics of the named figures (Mithra, etc), of which he will do little here, and what little he does do, is riddled with error (see below).
RELIGIOUS FANATICS WILL MAKE STUFF UP Yet more reasoning from Flemming which we will simply turn on its head to show the inherent fallacy:
And, the fact is, atheists have been known to make stuff up. This doesn't mean they always do, but it must be considered a reasonable possibility, especially with regard to claims that a) help their irreligion, and b) are not corroborated by outside sources.
But really: Why limit the schema to "religious fanatics" (why not expand it to "humans" or "fanatical humans")? What constitutes a "fanatic" in the first place? What does "stuff" mean? Why is the category not more specific? These last statements of are vague and without use in terms of epistemic evaluation.
The last bit, however, tends towards an actual argument of substance, with this offered as a specific:
That Luke is written in a style that suggests "history" means little. If you disagree, Joseph Smith has a factual account of his experiences with the angel Moroni that he would like you to read. That's "history," too.
To begin, Flemming fails to consider the obvious alternative that Smith had some experience that he THOUGHT was objectively real, so that "history" can truly say "Smith met Moroni" but with the caveat that the cause is another matter. (eg, it is a historical likelihood that Smith DID unearth something that could be identified with his "gold plates" but that they were not what he honestly thought they were). And here of course it is.
In reply for Smith, one may point to various problems with Mormonism; and fairly, a critic may try to claim problems in Luke. That of course is a matter we have pursued here in our articles on Mormonism.
We know that religious fanatics will make stuff up. This is not a prejudice. A prejudice would be: "Everything religious fanatics say is always untrue." Or: "Religious fanatics make stuff up, except for my religious fanatics."
Despite the denials, Flemming's formulation does reflect a prejudice that he is merely trying to sneak in under the semantic door, as it were, by adding language of qualification. He wants to assert that "religious fanatics" (whatever that means) are inventors so that he can tar with the brush of prejudice while semantically getting away with not doing so.
There is a poor attempt here to create plausible deniability for a clear prejudice. He is not expressing it "as a possibility to be seriously considered" but as a prejudice he wishes to insert at least "in the air".
WHERE SHOULD THE BAR BE PLACED? Here Flemming admits:
However, it is important not to place the bar too high on proving Jesus' existence. Because the claim that a man existed is not extraordinary, the evidence for his existence does not have to be extraordinary.
With that, Flemming says he will go and look for "ordinary evidence" and that will come after a diversion.
BEFORE THE FIRST CENTURY -- The contents here are a vague and generally uninformative (even erroneous) look at "salvation cults". Little in the way of arguments are offered, but such as can be commented upon:
Before we get to the beginning of the first century, we should establish a few things we know about the period immediately preceding it. We know that in the Roman Empire, there were several popular "salvation cults," sometimes known as "the mysteries." They shared many common attributes, such as sacred meals and baptisms in which the initiate could be "reborn."
No specifics are offered. However, "sacred meals" were actually reflective of the far more common element (used even by secular groups of the time) of table fellowship, rather than ideological borrowing. "Baptism" was very rare and emerged from the common view of water as a universal solvent.
Each god offered a pathway to eternal life. Mithra was an intermediary between the world of evil and the world of good, and his heroic actions in that intermediate realm were the ticket to a pleasant afterlife. Attis' suffering by castration guaranteed passage to paradise for his followers.
Both of these are false. As we say of Mithra:
As one Mithraic scholar put it, Mithraism "surely offered its initiates deliverance from some awful fate to which all other men were doomed, and a privileged passage to some ultimate state of well-being." [MS.470] Why is this a good guess? Not because Mithraism borrowed from Christianity, or Christianity borrowed from Mithraism, or anyone borrowed from anyone, but because if you don't promise your adherents something that secures their eternity, you may as well give up running a religion ...
On Attis he errs even more greatly:
In a study devoted entirely to the subject of "soteriology" in the Attis cult, Gasparro finds no "explicit statements about the prospects open to the mystai of Cybele and Attis" and "little basis in the documents in our possession" for the idea of "a ritual containing a symbology of death and resurrection to a new life." [Gasp.AAO, 82]
In other words, it is false to say that "Attis' suffering by castration guaranteed passage to paradise for his followers" -- this is a simply false claim.
A LONG SILENCE -- this is filled with arguments that show a patent unawareness of the social setting of the ancient world.
A book written by the Great Teacher himself (who should have been capable of and motivated to write it) would also be useful. But, inexplicably, Jesus apparently did not write this book.
It is not "inexplicable" at all in the culture of the Greco-Roman world. There are two factors that should be taken into account:
Documents written by his disciples, who apparently believed that he was the son of God, would also be both expected and valuable. But of 12 disciples, exactly none apparently wrote their own accounts of the Messiah they personally knew.
Flemming of course presumes to argue that Matthew, John, and Mark (writing down Peter's words) do not come from such sources, and if he wishes to engage that matter, he can address this . As it is, three or four accounts is what we would expect at most (as from disciples of Socrates).
Flemming merely offers the assertive declaration:
In my own research, I have noted that the vast majority of those who identify as Christians falsely believe that the gospels were written by actual disciples of Jesus. A sin of omission by Christian leaders, most of whom know better, keeps this widespread false belief alive.)
Then perhaps Flemming would care to enlighten us as to his answer to our material, by which the evidence for the authorship of the Gospels is far better than it is for that of any secular work of ancient times.
THE FIRST JESUS -- This is where Flemming uses Doherty (or somewhere else, perhaps) and following an allusion to dying and rising savior gods who "exist" only in a spiritual realm (itself an error, others have said, saying that these gods were believed to have been on earth; but we make it of no matter to our case) and a repeat of his Mithra and Attis errors, Flemming offers two options:
1. Paul knew about the Jesus described in the gospels but manages to write 80,000 words without exposing this knowledge.
2. Paul writes 80,000 words without mentioning the gospel stories because be doesn't know the gospel stories.
We have a few more options:
3. Paul had absolutely no reason to mention any of these things in much of his correspondence.
4. Paul did mention many of these things, but it takes a ream of excuses to explain them away.
5. Paul was a member of a "high context society" in which broad background knowledge could be taken for granted.
TAKE A SNAPSHOT -- Having assumed to prove his case, Flemming merely sums it up. Then:
ENTER THE HISTORICAL CHRIST -- he builds on this assumption of victory on prior issues (Pauline silence, late gospels) to explain that a new version of Christ as historical popped up. By what means?
It's called "midrash."
It isn't unusual that a religion under these circumstances would develop allegorical literature that turned into history with subsequent revisions. And the pattern conforms to what we would expect: The first gospel is allegorical and incomplete, then later writings display more confidence that they are recording history (as their authors probably believed they were). If one is to claim this pattern is unusual, one must deny virtually the entire category of story known as legend.
Actually, this is a very poor definition of "midrash" and the view of the Gospels as such, popularized by Spong, fails. But in light of the defeat of Flemming's earlier premises, his case does not get as far as being able to suggest this as an option.
THE VERY LATE EVIDENCE -- This is where Flemming discusses the secular references, and what little he offers has the errors we have answered. "Very late" he says? Then we may reject Tacitus' accounts of the reign of Augustus wholesale? What of Robert Price's appeal to the sixth century Toledeth Yeshu for material about a Jesus that was 700 years earlier by its account? Flemming has no epistemic consistency here; he merely rushes his case past as quickly and with as few details as possible.
Noting Josephus and Tacitus, Flemming says there's no reason to expect that either performed a serious investigation to verify any claims. In a sense I agree, because I think knowledge of Jesus was part of common knowledge, indisputable and without any question of whether he existed even possible. Nevertheless, as for Flemming's two options:
1. Josephus and Tacitus never seriously investigated the gospel origins and only passed on a brief synopsis that any observer would have related at that point in history.
2. Josephus and Tacitus performed serious investigations of the gospel origins only to mention Jesus in passing.
3. Tacitus and Josephus didn't need to perform serious investigations about the simple facts they reported because they were common knowledge. However, a) Tacitus was a competent and serious researcher who, if needed, would and could have done what investigation was needed; b) Josephus, though not as thorough a researcher, was reasonably competent and was also a resident of Judaea and Galilee who would have been aware of it if there had been any question of Jesus not existing or any reason to suspect that he didn't.
When Flemming says "reason will lead to a different evaluation of these statements than faith" we fail to see how he arrived at that, unless "reason" is defined as "doing little research."
THE EARLY CHURCH ADMITS DECEIT -- Flemming poses:
Historical accuracy was most certainly not the first priority for the early church. Church father Eusebius probably puts it best in his own words: "We shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be useful first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity."
No specific application is made to the Christ myth, but I have seen that many atheists misuse this quote from Eusebius. A far more sober treatment is found here. Flemming merely follows Gibbon, to whom Pearse replied:
I think we can see that v.2 is the bit that Gibbon has used. But does it mean what Gibbon says? Or is Eusebius, faced with a huge amount of material for contemporary events, simply honestly stating that from here on he won't cover everything, but only those which are in some way useful to know about, whether positive, or negative but with a useful moral, and for the rest stick to general statements? It seems as if that the latter is more consistent with the context, although one could make out some sort of case that Gibbon is misrepresenting something that is really there in Eusebius. But is the idea that Gibbon is making in Eusebius' mind at all? Surely he's thinking about writing something useful to his public?
HOW TO DENY THE OBVIOUS -- there's little need to address, now, Flemming's comparison to the "Bat Boy". But it's hardly surpising that this is the section he spends the most time on. Itr is little more than a poor attempt to validate his poor scholarship and addressing of details on figures like Mithra.
CONCLUSION -- It is truly ironic to see a Christ-myther arguing in terms of how an irrational belief system greatly increases the odds that a debater will throw these kinds of stones in my path. But now comments on his conclusions:
1. I do not claim there is a Xerox-like similarity between the gospels and any previously existing literature.
And we do not demand one. But we do demand that scholarly standards be observed, and Flemming, who cannot even get simple points about Mithra and Attis right, isn't coming close.
2. I do claim that demanding this kind of evidence is simply a distraction from relevant points of argument.
We're not demanding "that kind of evidence" but with the kind of errors Flemming is making on the most simple matters, even our bar -- that of basic accuracy -- seems to high for him as well.
3. I do claim that setting the bar in the appropriate place (on both sides of the question) is necessary for an honest and productive discussion.
Which in light of the above, and Flemming's use of dishonest tactics and errors about the simplest things (eg, there being NO records left from Pilate's court), tells us that there will be no such discussion from him, nor intent for one.
4. I do claim that the bar for being suspicious of the Jesus story's authenticity is that it is similar to prior stories of dying and rising gods.
"Similar" is a vague word that allows a dishonest interpreter to pick and choose among what he thinks ought to be suspicious. But really, he can't get even that far when he can't get the most basic data correct.
5. I do not claim that this similarity alone makes the complete case against a historical Jesus--it only increases the probability that Jesus is fictional.
So when will he step out and answer us? He will not -- see below.
6. I do claim that if the Jesus story is true, there should be some evidence from his lifetime and just after that is not present.
Of course, and there is -- but he uses already-refuted arguments to dispense with it.
7. I do not claim that this absence of evidence alone makes the case--it only increases the probability that Jesus is fictional.
It would, perhaps, if true.
8. I do claim that Paul's and the early Christians' apparent ignorance of the bulk of the Jesus narrative is legitimate grounds for being further suspicious of the eventual Jesus story's authenticity.
As noted, this is simply lack of knowledge of the nature of Paul's society, as well as contrived arguments to explain passages like 1 Thess. 2:14-16.
9. I do not claim that this factor alone makes the case--it only increases the probability that Jesus is fictional.
Perhaps true, if the background premise is valid, which it is not.
10. I do claim that the late arrival of the first alleged biography of Jesus, and the even later arrival of significant updates to that biography, are legitimate grounds for being even further suspicious of the Jesus story's authenticity.
And we claim that Flemming merely follows uncritically what is said about dates and authorship of the Gospels, and has neither the means nor the ability to defend his views.
11. I do not claim that this late-arrival factor alone makes the case--it only increases the probability that Jesus is fictional. The same.
12. I do claim that the Jesus story's strong conformity to a "hero pattern" that the writers of stories of gods and heroes have been driven to use since long before Jesus is grounds to believe that it is more likely that the Jesus story is a product similar to those previous products than that it is an authentic historical (or supernatural) coincidence.
And we say in turn that this "strong conformity" is an illusion, as documented in Licona's response.
13. I do not claim that this factor alone makes the case--it only increases the probability that Jesus is fictional.
14. I do claim that midrash can partially explain the creation of the gospels.
We reply that Flemming has a poor conception of the uses and creation of "midrash" and no controlling thesis that would also not make it possible to render any history we like into midrash.
15. I do not claim that this factor alone makes the case--it only increases the probability that the gospels are fictional.
I should mention that the above essay merely skims some conclusions that I have reached in my own research. This essay is by no means a comprehensive representation of the mythicist case, nor is The God Who Wasn't There, which is merely an introduction to the case. Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price, Richard Carrier and others (none of whom I speak for here) have made the case and various facets of it more comprehensively and far better than I can. I would encourage readers of the DebateBlog to experience these works directly, especially if you fear them.
We have seen the works ofall of these authors and refuted them. But by now it is clear that Flemming refuses to take his own advice and "experience" debate with us directly.
Shortly after the above debate, Flemming posted an item in his blog which speaks for itself in terms of how eager he is to debate the premises of his film:
So you want to debate me...So you would like to challenge me about the claims I make in The God Who Wasn't There?
No problem. But please understand that I get a lot of these requests, and I can't waste my time arguing with people who are not open to changing their minds or who haven't developed enough familiarity with the material.
So just download and sign this "Statement of Belief" PDF, have it notarized, then mail it to Beyond Belief Media. Then we can talk.
If you are unable to sign the Statement, we cannot talk any further, for one or both of the following reasons:
1) You are not familiar enough with the facts to be ready for a meaningful discussion at this time.
2) Your capacity to understand the facts is so compromised by your religious ideology that a conversation with you would be pointless.
We'll comment on this "Statement of Belief" in a moment, but to begin a few things become clear.
The first is that Flemming is clearly seeking to avoid debating informed Christians. Avoidance is his tactic, just as it was when he did his "man on the street" interviews and avoided credentialed scholars with opposing views.
Note as well the supposition inherent here: That if you disagree with his views, it must be because you "haven't developed enough familiarity with the material". There is no conception that someone who IS thoroughly familiar with the material could possibly disagree with him.
A second thought is the caveat about "open to changing their minds." I have doubts that any debate scenario anywhere has ever made such a delineation. At the same time, has it eluded Flemming that debates have audiences? Is he going to make all the people who want to watch a debate with him and someone else sign a "Statement of Belief" too?
This makes it quite clear that what we have here is a contrived tactic to avoid debate, not a genuine concern to change the minds of others. It may be added that Flemming has apparently had no debates at all since he issued this statement -- who was he intending to leave himself open to debate?
And of course, item 2) above is another example of the sort of easily reversible statement that Flemming could have read back to him, with the word "irreligious" instead.
Now let's comment on this "Statement of Belief":
I believe it is possible that Jesus did not exist.
The requirement, as 1) above, begs the question that Flemming's case is decisive. In other words, you are essentially being asked to acknowledge that Flemming is right about the case for Jesus not being solid, which is the very issue to be debated. Creationists have never demanded that evolutionists sign a "Statement of Belief" that says, "It is possible that evolution is not true." Nor has the opposite been done. They would rightly be scorn such an imposition.
Is it "possible" Jesus did not exist? I have weighed the evidence, which Flemming refuses to deal with me on. The only way this statement could be affirmed in good conscience is if I added the caveat, "in the same sense it is 'possible' that aliens built the Great Pyramid."
I believe there is no evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ that dates to the time of his alleged life.
While this is true, the question presupposes an argument that only "evidence that dates to the time" of one's life counts for anything. All of this of course would mean that there is some issue over, eg, Tacitus writing about Nero 50-70 years after his death, which there is not. So while it could be affirmed as it stands, it begs enormous questions of historical epistemology.
I believe there are no written eyewitness accounts of the existence of Jesus Christ.
I believe the names of the Gospels were added well after their composition, and there is no good reason to believe that these names correspond to the original writers.
I believe there is no good reason to believe that any of the Gospels were written by disciples of Jesus Christ, or that any eyewitnesses to Jesus were involved in their composition.
I leave these three together for they represent the most clear place in which Flemming is obviously trying to avoid debating a critical premise. Of course this is one place where he might say that "consensus" agrees with the view implied (it doesn't, not to the extent of his role model, Doherty); but if that is so, then he needs to remove either these or item 1 above ("it is possible Jesus did not exist") because item 1 stands against a stronger and even broader consensus.
And so Flemming would have to fairly acknowledge that it is "possible" that there are written eyewitness accounts of the existence of Jesus Christ; that the names of the Gospels were NOT added well after their composition, that there is no good reason to believe that these names correspond to the original writers, and that some of the Gospels were written by disciples of Jesus Christ, or that eyewitnesses to Jesus were involved in their composition.
As it is, it becomes clear that Flemming wants you to assume he is right on this before he'll agree to debate you, and that is the very sort of closed-mindedness he says will make him avoid debating others.
I believe the Bible is not infallible.
While I could not sign this, it hardly means a meaningful debate cannot be had; most of what I would argue simply uses the Bible as one would use any histiorical work like the Annals of Tacitus.
I believe it is common for religious cults to make things up.
The words are somewhat vague (how "common"?) but in any event, as noted above, this reflects a prejudgment by Flemming.
I believe it is common for religions to influence each other, and for young religions to be derived from older religions.
Likewise vague; but only KJV Onlyists would say that Christianity was not influenced by Judaism, or that Christianity did not "trump" pagan art by doing things like redrawing Mithra killing the bull as Samson killing a lion. The vagueness hides the issue of means and direction of influence, as well as its significane.
I believe that any claim can be part of Christian tradition and also be false.
Obviously -- such as, "Jesus was born Dec. 25th."
I believe that no figures such as "God" or "The Holy Spirit" or "Satan" performed any supernatural actions that had any significant effect upon the formation of early Christianity.
Vague as well ("significant"? how?) and also would exclude the Resurrection, if taken literally. If so, Flemming has now made it so that he will never debate any Christian. At the best he'll debate someone like John Shelby Spong.
So what's it boil down to? Flemming could have made it simpler by making his Statement of Belief read:
"I believe that Brian Flemming is right and that he will win any debate."
It speaks for itself.
It speaks for itself as well that in his personal blog under the title, "Christian apologist J.P. Holding admits that Jesus never existed" we found the following:
This is a stunner. Talk about strange bedfellows.
A notorious Christian apologist named J.P. Holding has admitted that the case made in The God Who Wasn't There is so solid that he could not refute it in a debate. He has backed out of a former debate challenge by stating:
I believe that Brian Flemming is right and that he will win any debate.
Of course, as you probably suspect, that's not the whole story. Mr. Holding is being sarcastic in the above statement. He says that if he signed the required Statement of Belief, that would be the same thing as saying, "I believe that Brian Flemming is right."
But that tells us a lot right there, doesn't it?
He's essentially said this:
If the propositions in the Statement of Belief are true, Jesus did not exist.
I don't see how it could be read any other way. J.P. Holding is essentially admitting that without the supernatural trump card, his position loses.
Well, do allow us to correct that "essentially".
Flemming is right on one key point: I was being sarcastic. But far more sarcastic than he thinks I was.
No, I did not say "[i]f the propositions in the Statement of Belief are true, Jesus did not exist." I said, "Brian Flemming is afraid of informed opposition, and wants to place critical elements of the debate off limits in order to avoid being shown as one who can't defend his position."
Arguably, one COULD sign off on Flemming's statement and still debate the existence of Jesus. A liberal Christian, GakeusiDon, has indicated that he could sign off on more than I could (but still not all of them; perhaps only Spong could do that).
But Flemming had been aware of our challenges for quite some time; and the "Statement of Belief" is carefully circumscribed to make it so that I in particular (to say nothing of any informed opponent) could not sign it in good conscience.
No "supernatural trump card" is needed. I didn't use any "supernatural trump card" when I refutd Earl Doherty years before, and I don't need one here. Indeed, other than the last entry in Flemming's "Statement" (which, as noted, if read literally rules out debate with ANY Christian at all), none of the matters require any supernaturalism for any consideration, so the premise tendered is false to begin with.
My point had been: Flemming has so circumscribed the conditions that he may as well simply say that he wants us to concede all points before we will debate him.
He goes on:
No rational person familiar with the facts could disagree with the Statement of Belief. Every one of those assertions is as obvious as "Brian Flemming takes enormous glee in manipulating Christian lunatics." The only way not to believe them is to use the magic of faith.
And yet, if it is so obviously "rational" and so in accord with "the facts" then why doesn't Flemming engage me in public debate by means of his mastery of "rationality" and "the facts"? He won't (even if he could get the definition of faith correct). Why not?
(Oh, and here's a window, possibly, into why J.P. Holding has a fixation on my movie. Imagine that you thought your eternal happiness was dependent on the whim of a notably temperamental sky god. And now imagine this sky god Googled you. Would He understand the meaning of "Sponsored Links"?)
The apparent meaning of this is that when one does this, Flemming's movie website appears as a sponsored link. Frankly, I pay no attention to advertisements; this is news to me, though it does suggest that Flemming can't get attention for his film by the usual means (eg, having quality and traffic as a result).
In any event, the "eternal happiness/tempermental sky god" phrase doesn't describe our beleif system, though it reflects no doubt the caricatured system Flemming held to as a former believer. Call ours the system of the predictable patron/suzerain God responsible for the honor ratings of His subjects.
And that seems to be the last we'll hear from Flemming.