Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Jesus Myth Theory: A Response to David Fitzgerald

"Never Argue with a Fanatic"

A wise old former university lecturer of mine once advised me "Never argue with a fanatic."  At the time I didn't understand.  Given that I was a post-graduate student in my early twenties, I spent quite a bit of time arguing vigorously with all kinds of people, including Creationist and other fundamentalist Christian fanatics.  And I  had convinced myself, in all the zeal of a new-found atheism, that this was a very worthy and, indeed, necessary and important thing to do.  It's only been in more recent years that I've come to understand why she gave that advice - the fanatic in question is usually completely beyond reason and, on most subjects, everyone else really doesn't care.

In the last ten years or so I have spent a reasonable amount of time arguing with a few of the more fanatical adherents of the "Jesus Never Existed" brigade, but I've been fairly selective about who I have debated and why.  On the whole, I've ignored the New Ager wing of the Jesus Myther faction (eg the acolytes of the woman who calls herself "Acharya S" and the people who take the online "documentary" Zeitgeist seriously) as well as the tiny handful who are convinced by the "Jesus was really a Roman emperor" theses of Atwill and Carotta.  I've concentrated mainly on the atheists who tend towards some version of Earl Doherty's thesis, which is now being evangelised by the anti-Christian activist, Richard Carrier. And I usually only do so when there is some chance that the other person or some of the onlookers might see why scholars don't take the Jesus Myth thesis seriously.  To do otherwise is simply to waste time I can spend elsewhere to much better effect.

Two years ago Amazon included David Fitzgerald's Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All in my recommendations and, on reading glowing reviews of it by none other than Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and others of the tiny handful of Jesus Mythers, I thought a review of it would be a worthwhile platform for showing why the Jesus Myth thesis is contrived pseudo historical junk.  It seems the effort was worth it - that review has gone on to become the third most read on this blog and it comes up in the top links on any Google search on Fitzgerald's book.  I regularly find link-backs to it on various online discussions where someone responds to an expression of sympathy for the Jesus Myth thesis with a simple "Read this" and a link to my critique of Fitzgerald's book.

So it's hardly surprising that Fitzgerald himself was much displeased with my review and that, a year or so afterwards, he wrote a very long and very detailed response on his own blog entitled "Nailed: Completely Brilliant or a Tragic Waste of Trees? YOU be the Judge ... " Unsurprisingly, Fitzgerald came down on the side of "Completely Brilliant".  His response was pretty much what I would have expected, with precisely the contrived counter-arguments we see from the Jesus Mythers in any number of online debates on the topic.  But over the intervening year people have kept asking me if I am going to reply to his reply, so since there does seem to be some interest and since his response gives me the opportunity to counter some Mythicist arguments in more detail, I'm going to do so below.

Firstly though, a couple of points to note.  My original critique of Fitzgerald's book was fairly long - about 7,500 words.  Given that he made a point of responding to virtually everything I said, Fitzgerald's response was even longer - a whopping 10,000 words.  So it's inevitable that my reply is also going to be substantial.  Apologies for that in advance.  I will try to indicate what part of his arguments I'm rebutting in my subheadings so that those who don't want to wade through the whole thing can find any point of particular interest more easily.  Secondly, and on a related point, I am going to try to keep the length of my reply under control to some extent by only responding to substantial points or ones in which I think people may feel Fitzgerald countered my arguments effectively.  The danger in doing this is that the Mythicists and their followers seem to think any point they make that isn't rebutted is a mighty victory (as anyone who has tried to reply to one of Earl Doherty's tsunamis of text would know), so if anyone feels I miss a point that was worth addressing I'm happy to take it up with them in the comments section below or perhaps in a second post.

So, I hope you're sitting comfortably - on with the show ...

Fitzgerald Gets Emotional.  Very Emotional.

No-one likes getting a bad review.  I understand that.  And there's no doubt that my review of Nailed left readers pretty clear that I thought the book was absolutely terrible - easily the worst book I've ever reviewed on this blog.  But I generally kept the tone of my critique level and definitely tried to avoid making any comments about the author himself.

In his reply, however, Fitzgerald decided to make this personal.

His fans sprang to his defence, declaring my review "vitriolic", though its tone actually rarely rises above "mildly scornful".  Despite this, Fitzgerald decided to not only respond to my critique but also to attack me personally, and so his piece manages to call me a "douche", a "blog gadfly", "the Perez Hilton of atheism", "Bill O’Reillyesque", "a Fox News pundit", "His Shrillness", "his assholedom","chicken-shit" and a few other colourful epithets.  As a friend of mine said to me after reading it, "Mate, it seems you really hit a nerve".

Fitzgerald seems genuinely mystified as to why anyone would want to disagree with him - the idea that I would feel moved to do so because I think he is simply profoundly wrong doesn't seem to occur to him.  He asks himself "what IS this guy’s fucking problem?" but fails to come up with a plausible answer.  He finally hits the nail right on the thumb by concluding that I'm motivated by "a mix of jealousy and desire for self-promotion" and finally declares "all O’Neill really craves is notoriety - to be the Perez Hilton of atheism."

It only takes a few seconds' clear thought to realise that writing a detailed and lengthy critique of a short self-published booklet by a total nobody on a subject most people would find yawn-inducing is hardly going to make me the next Perez Hilton, even within the tiny bubble of internet atheists.  And the most cursory reading of my blog would indicate what my actual motivation is.  Here I criticise Rodney Stark for distorting history and presenting pseudo historical junk reasoning out of ideological bias.  And I criticise Charles Freeman for distorting history and presenting pseudo historical junk reasoning out of ideological bias.  And I criticise Stephen Greenblatt for distorting history and presenting pseudo historical junk reasoning out of ideological bias.  Even without reading any of the rest of my online history over the last twenty years and seeing me do the same thing with Holocaust deniers, Dan Brown believers, Serbian nationalists and George W. Bush fans it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to see the clear pattern here and to realise where my critique of Fitzgerald and the Mythicists fits into it.

Richard Carrier - An Artist's Impression
Scholars, Hobbyists and the Amazing Richard Carrier

Things don't get much better when Fitzgerald finally turns to my review.  In fact, his very first criticism contains a rather clumsy blunder.  He objects strenuously to my reference to "several other amateurs and hobbyists, like Richard Carrier and R.G. Price", responding in the rather shrill over-defensiveness that Mythicists always adopt when the fact that their ranks are made up almost entirely of amateur dabblers is pointed out.  In a state of high dudgeon, he informs us that "Robert M. Price (who he misnames “R.G. Price”) .... is a professor of biblical criticism, a member of the Society of Biblical Literature as well as the Jesus Seminar, CSER, and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism."  Well yes he is.  But I was not refering to Robert M. Price, who is pretty much the lone professional scholar amongst the Mythicists.  I was referring, as I very clearly said, to R.G. Price, the author of the self-published Mythicist book Jesus: A Very Jewish Myth.  I later refer to Robert M. Price as "one of the two or three actual professional scholars who give the Mythicist thesis any credence", which makes the distinction between the amateur and the professional quite clear.  Of course, having two Mythicists with the same surname and initial explains Fitzgerald's awkward blunder, but given that R.G. Price self-publishes using - same print-on-demand service Fitzgerald used to publish Nailed - it's amusing that he did not know who I was talking about.  That aside, his silly mistake doesn't exactly get him off to a flying start.

He also doesn't start well with his complaint that I "lump together the crank theories with the serious scholarship being done by Doherty, Price, Carrier, et al.", given that anyone who reads my critique can see I do precisely the opposite.  After summaries of the crackpot theories of Atwill, Carotta and "Acharya S"/Murdock, I note that there is a third category of Jesus Myth theory that is more scholarly (not that this would be hard), exemplified by Earl Doherty.  I state clearly "Unlike Freke, Gandy and Murdock, Doherty at least tries to use proper academic processes and approaches and his work is much more popular amongst atheists, freethinkers and humanists as a result."  Though it is a little odd that Fitzgerald was so keen to dissociate himself from the New Age kook "Acharya S" when he wrote his reply but has been less fastidious lately: both he and the New Ager in question happily helped contribute to a recent Jesus Myth collaboration.  Birds of a feather and all that ...

But he takes particular umbrage at my characterisation of Richard Carrier as an amateur.  This is not too surprising given that in his book's "Acknowledgements" he calls Carrier "my best friend, mentor and hero" and gushes about his "brilliant scholarship, scholastic rigor, insights, criticisms, corrections and encouragement" (p. 239).  Carrier does have a Ph.D in Ancient History from Columbia, but he remains an amateur rather than a professional scholar, despite Fitzgerald's hyperbolic description of this blogger as "one of the most influential atheist thinkers on the planet today" (with a link to some kind of list of 25 prominent atheists, with Carrier at No. 25).  Carrier has no research or teaching position at any accredited institution of higher learning and has, in the five years since achieving his doctorate, has published only two articles in peer reviewed journals - a dilatory publishing record explained by the amount of time he has spent self-publishing anti-Christian polemic and giving talks on why Christianity is wrong to sceptical and rationalist organisations.  It also explains his recent announcement that he has effectively given up any hope of securing a professional academic appointment and seems to be sticking to his hobby of polemics full time.

Now, I will admit to some jealousy of Carrier in one sense: I wish I could give up my professional career and indulge in a hobby - say, book binding or fly fishing - as a full time pursuit while my patient spouse supported me financially.  But while Carrier does enjoy this rare privilege he remains, as I said, not a professional academic but simply a blogger with a higher degree.  And there's no great shortage of them on the internet.

Fitzgerald is definitely sensitive to any criticism of his self-declared "hero"; earlier in his piece he made a couple of bizarre assertions about me, claiming I "used to regularly show up on Richard Carrier’s blog doing (my) usual pissy, nitpicking schtick".  This claim is, unfortunately, complete garbage.  I have only ever read a handful of Carrier's blog posts in my whole life and "showed up" on his blog precisely once, commenting the grand total of two times on one post.  How this can become me "regularly showing up" in Fitzgerald's mind is a great mystery.  As is his next claim:

(That is) until of course he took it too far and Carrier actually caught him in a lie, which seems to have put an end to his antics on that blog.

I've found that Mythicists are very keen on not simply disagreeing with those who find their thesis unconvincing, but also seem to have a strange need to prove their opponents are actually wicked as well.  This is about the third time I have had a Mythicist proclaim that I have "lied", though each time the claim has been patently manufactured.  In this case, it's hard to see exactly what the hell Carrier is on about.  He invites the reader to click on two links and see me "lying" about some sort of claim of misspelling and a fraudulently misplaced "sic", but the quotes in the two linked comments are identical, contain no "sic" and give us no clue as to what this alleged "lie" is.  Very weird behaviour from "one of the most influential atheist thinkers on the planet today".

A commenter noted that Carrier's claim about my supposed wicked "lie" makes no sense and is not substantiated by the links he gives and pointed this out to Fitzgerald on another blog post.  Oddly, Fitzgerald simply fell silent.  This kind of bizarre behaviour really makes you wonder what is driving these people.  Not rationalism, that's for sure.

Fitzgerald ends his touching if slightly weird defence of his "mentor and hero" by paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen saying "Tim O’Neill, I know Richard Carrier. Richard Carrier is a friend of mine. And you, sir, are no Richard Carrier."  This was, I gather meant to be some kind of put down.  But given my exposure to Carrier's polemics over the years, I can't say I found it more than mildly amusing.  

Carrier is actually the epitome of what is wrong with the way New Atheism tends to approach history - starting with any conclusion that makes religion in general and/or Christianity in particular look as bad a possible and then cherry picking evidence or arguments to support that a priori position over any other interpretation.  Because he has a good knowledge of the source material and is a good polemicist he happens to be much better at this game than, say, Hitchens or, worse still, Dawkins.  And years of performing to a peanut gallery of generally historically-illiterate atheist fanboys seems to have convinced him of his own vast omni-competence.   Carrier is precisely the kind of person who has always made the very worst kind of historian - an ideologue with an agenda.  So I can't say Fitzgerald's "you are no Richard Carrier" line bothers me much.

Take the brief exchange I had with Carrier in the blog post linked to above.  As is to be expected, Carrier is happy with the idea that a mob of wicked Christians destroyed the last remnant of the Great Library of Alexandria when they tore down the Serapeum in AD 391.  When I had the impertinence to point out that none of the five accounts we have of this well-documented event so much as hint at any library being destroyed, he brushed this aside, saying the emphasis of the accounts is focused on the cultic elements in the temple.  Maybe so, but at least two of the accounts are hostile to the faction of the destroyers, so its still odd that they don't mention the destruction of a famous library, especially since one of them was Eunapius of Sardis: an anti-Christian zealot, pagan philosopher and scholar.  It is hard to see why he, of all people, would neglect to mention the hated Christian ignoramuses destroying the last remnant of the greatest library in the world.  No matter, says Carrier blithely, "his account is too brief". Carrier assures his readers "All he describes is the raid on its pagan statues, and some vague looting otherwise. His concern is clearly with the offense to the gods."

Of course few of the readers of Carrier's blog have any inclination to check what the little master says.  But if they had checked this they would have found Eunapius' account is not actually very "brief" at all.  And that he has much to say about things other than statues and looting.  The account in his Lives of the Philosophers runs to 548 words in English translation.  Of these, a full 245 are not about pagan statues etc, but are devoted wholly to denigration of the ignorant Christian monks who destroyed the temple.  He calls them "men in appearance (who) led the lives of swine", says they "fettered the human race to the worship of slaves" and mocks them for their worship of martyrs' relics and their general stupidity.  Given that around 40% of his account is taken up with this scorning and mocking of these monks, it is still very strange that this scholar neglects to mention in his condemnation that these ignorant oafs also happened to destroy one of the best libraries in the world.  Carrier's glib "his account is too brief" excuse does not ring true if you actually look at the account.

Carrier also dismisses the idea that Ammianus Marcellinus' description of the Serapeum was based on having seen the temple himself, despite Ammianus making it clear that he had visited Egypt when on military service in the east (History, XVII.4.6), describing seeing obelisks amongst the ruins of Thebes.  Then he claims that all of Ammianus' account of the Serapeum, including his pertinent use of the past tense when he mentions the libraries it had once housed, can be ignored because "his text on this is a quotation almost verbatim of the 2nd century Aulus Gellius" and so not an account of the state of the Serapeum in the mid Fourth Century at all.

Again, his blog readers are unlikely to have bothered to check if Carrier's "almost verbatim" claim is true by digging up the Latin texts of both Ammianus and Aulus Gellius and comparing them.  At this stage I abandoned arguing with Carrier's blatant bias on this point as a lost cause.  But when someone on another forum later tried to use his claim to counter my argument that Ammianus' account shows there was no library in the Serapeum in AD 391, I showed them the Latin.  Far from being "almost verbatim", Ammianus' description is significantly longer (75 words in Latin) and contains multiple elements not only not found in Aulus but also not found in any other description of the Serapeum - they are details totally unique to his work, as we would expect if he had seen the temple himself.  His account only overlaps in any way with the far shorter passage in Aulus (41 words in Latin) in one short phrase - "bello Alexandrino, dum diripitur civitas" in Ammianus and "bello priore Alexandrino, dum diripitur ea civitas" in Aulus - far too brief and too different to make any solid case for derivation, given they are simply two writers describing the same war in similar terms.

When this person confronted Carrier with the two passages in Latin and asked for him to justify his "almost verbatim" claim he responded with some waffle and ... the bizarre and baseless claim that he'd exposed some lie I'd made (see above).  Even for a polemical blogger, this is weak stuff.  For a supposed "historian", it's absolutely pathetic.

But this is typical of Carrier. He has a wall-eyed bias when it comes to Christianity which sees him doing bizarre things like blundering around trying to prop up a version of the old "Conflict Thesis", showing that he has a grasp of Medieval history on about the same level as a Prince Valiant comic strip in the process.  Or trying to pretend Bayes' Theorem can be used in history to do anything other than give your prior assumptions an illusion of mathematical precision to the easily bamboozled.  But he has also increasingly nailed his colours to the mast of the sinking ship of Jesus Mythicism and seemed to think that his great moment had come when he poured forth a vast torrent of words critiquing eminent New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman's recent book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth .  Despite their enormous length and slightly crazed passion, these posts consisted almost entirely of inconsequential attempts at nitpicking of minor issues, though Carrier seems wholly convinced he was striking Ehrman many mighty blows.  Ehrman's coolly urbane and scrupulously professional replies (here and, at greater length here), by contrast, have the amused tone of a man who has found himself being savagely attacked by a tiny but inexplicably enraged chihuahua.

Carrier's only substantial point was where he claimed to have found textual evidence of a belief that the Messiah would die and rise again that pre-dates Jesus.  This, if true, certainly would undermine one of the main objections to the idea no historical Jesus existed to get executed and thus give rise to this wholly new concept of a dying Messiah.  Unfortunately Carrier is no textual critic and is not sufficiently well-versed in the appropriate linguistics to carry this off, and another blogger who does have the requiste training proceeded to take him to the woodshed a give him a savage whipping.  In a series of long and detailed posts, Thom Stark shows the difference between someone who knows what they are talking about and a fatuous wannabe with delusions of omni-competence in areas well beyond his field.  Stark's posts here, here and here are a joy to read.

So I'm "no Richard Carrier"?  All I can say to that is "Thank you".

Apologists versus "Critical Scholars"

Fitzgerald's adulation of his "hero and mentor" Carrier is directly relevant to his next major objection to my critique.  He took exception to this passage in my original review:

So from the start Fitzgerald sets up an artificial dichotomy, with conservative apologists defending a traditional orthodox Jesus on one hand and brave "critics who (dispute) Christian claims" who don't believe in any Jesus at all on the other. And nothing in between. This is nonsense, because it ignores a vast middle ground of scholars - liberal Christian, Jewish, atheist and agnostic - who definitely "dispute Christian claims" but who also conclude that there was a human, Jewish, historical First Century preacher as the point of origin for the later stories of "Jesus Christ"

He responds by claiming "this nonsensical 'dichotomy' is O’Neill’s own creation, not mine" and assuring his readers " I frequently cite the work of the 'middle ground of scholars' throughout the book -including several of the ones he claims I’m ignoring - by name." But this dichotomy is not in my imagination, it's right there in the part of the book I cite in my review (pp. 15-16).  He contrasts Christian apologists, naming and quoting Josh McDowell, F.F. Bruce and Otto Betz dismissing the idea Jesus never existed, and then contrasts them with "critics who have disputed Christian claims" beginning with (you guessed it) Richard Carrier.  Nowhere in this passage is there any acknowledgement of the vast number of critical scholars who "dispute Christian claims" and also dismiss the Jesus Myth theory.

More importantly, there is no acknowledgement of this middle ground of scholars anywhere in his book, despite the fact they make up the overwhelming bulk of the scholars in the relevant fields.  A naive reader who was unaware of the academic state of play on the question of a historical Jesus would have no idea this wide middle ground even existed if Fitzgerald's book was all they read on the subject.  Even in a popular treatment of a scholarly topic, that smacks heavily of wilful distortion.  It certainly doesn't indicate wholesale academic honesty.  What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis, but Fitzgerald does not even acknowledge this middle ground position  - that of a historical Jesus who was not miraculous and does not conform closely to the Jesus of the gospels - even exists.

His claim that he cites these non-Christian scholars "including several of the ones he claims I’m ignoring" does not blunt the criticism above - when he does so, he usually cites them to support a specific point of critical analysis, with zero acknowledgement that the scholar in question fully accepts a historical Jesus.  This is something like the way Creationists love to pepper their work with scholarly footnotes and citations of real scientists, without noting that these same scientists think Creationism is nonsense.  

And his claim that he does this with "several" of the scholars I mentioned is typical Fitzgeraldian exaggeration, unless we can find a way to make "just two" stretch into "several".  The only scholars on my list that he cites are Bart Ehrman (8 times) and Hyam Maccoby (3 times).  Maccoby is cited via endnotes to support three unremarkable statements about Jewish culture in the period.  The citations and quotes of Ehrman are generally to support widely accepted conclusions about the nature of Christian scriptures.  Again, a reader not familiar with this material would have no idea that while Ehrman, like most scholars, rejects the idea of a Jesus based on a face value reading of the New Testatement, he vehemently rejects Mythicism to the extent that he has written a whole book debunking it.  This is like the way Creationists merrily cite and quote Stephen Jay Gould when convenient, despite Gould's vehement opposition to Creationism.

The others I mentioned as representing the middle ground of Jewish and other non-Christian scholars - Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Ludemann, Mark Nanos, Alan Segal, Jacob Neusner and Geza Vermes - get no mention at all in Fitzgerald's book, despite including several of the biggest names in the field.  The people mentioned in the parts of the book where he argues against the idea of a historical Jesus are not these neutral, objective scholars but apologists, fundamentalists and conservatives.  These include Josh McDowell, Otto Betz, F.F. Bruce, Douglas Geivett, Lee Strobel and Craig Blomberg, many of whom are not even scholars at all.  Far more prominent than anyone cited in his work is a grab-bag from the Mythicist fringe, including Earl Doherty and Frank Zindler (2 times) and Robert Price (3 times).  Even the highly obscure early Twentieth Century French Mythicist Paul-Louis Couchoud is citied (2 times).  But the "authority" Fitzgerald turns to over and over again is not any leading scholar or acknowledged professional expert in the field but none other than his "hero and mentor", the blogger and anti-Christian activist Richard Carrier, who is cited and quoted and otherwise put on a pedestal a whopping 13 times in the text (even more in the endnotes).

A scholarly analysis of a question strives to account for all serious arguments and deals with them in detail.  Even a popular treatment makes a point of paying due acknowledgement to relevant positions on a given issue.  But nowhere in his book does Fitzgerald even hint that there is a substantial middle ground between the gospel Jesus of people like McDowell and Strobel and the non-existent Jesus of his Mythicist friends.  When that middle ground is the scholarly mainstream and held by the leading scholars in the field, this omission ceases to be merely amateurish and sloppy and becomes actively and deliberately tendentious.

The "Failed Messiahs" Who Weren't There

Like most Mythicists, Fitzgerald attempts to make an argument from silence to support the idea that Jesus did not exist.  These arguments usually boil down to this:

1. Jesus is not mentioned by {insert First Century writer/writers here},
2.  {First Century writer/writers} should have mentioned Jesus if he existed,
3.  Therefore Jesus did not exist.

This is considered a killer argument by many of the more naive variety of Mythicist.  On the hysterical venting of angry teenage apostasy that is the  /r/atheism forum on reddit, for example, pretty much any reference to a historical Jesus is met with a sneering version of this argument, as though this somehow settles the matter on its own.

Fitzgerald, at least, tries to make the argument in a more sophisticated way, but in doing so he makes an assertion which would be astonishing to anyone with a genuine grasp of the source material:

There were plenty of writers, both Roman and Jewish, who had great interest in and much to say about (Jesus') region and its happenings .... We still have many of their writings today: volumes and volumes from scores of writers detailing humdrum events and lesser exploits of much more mundane figures in Roman Palestine, including several failed Messiahs.  (Fitzgerald, p. 22, my emphasis)
The problem with this claim is not that there were not other figures in Roman Palestine who were like Jesus or even that there were not other failed Messiahs.  There were.  The problem lies in his claim that there  were "plenty of writers" or even "scores of writers" talking about them.  As I noted in my review, if we really did have "scores of writers" who were busily "detailing" the "lesser exploits of much more mundane figures (and) several failed Messiahs" in this period but who did not mention Jesus, then the argument from silence above really would be a killer argument.

The key point to note here is that the weakness of the Mythicist argument from silence lies in its second premise: in order for the argument to work, it is not enough for the Mythicist to merely note that the writer/s in question don't mention Jesus, but they have to also show they should have done so. That is slightly more tricky.  This is why kooky Mythicist claims that, say, because Marcus Annaeus Lucanus makes no mention of Jesus he therefore didn't exist are so utterly ridiculous.  It is very difficult to show why a Roman poet from Spain whose sole remaining works are a single poem and a history of the war between Caesar and Pompey (in the century before Jesus was even born!) "should" have mentioned Jesus when he shows zero interest in Jewish affairs and makes no mention of any other Jewish preachers, prophets, wonder workers or Messianic claimants.

But if, as Fitzgerald so grandly asserts, we actually have "many" - indeed, "scores" no less - of these  writers who actually DO mention other such Jewish preachers, prophets, wonder workers or Messianic claimants but DON'T mention Jesus then Fitzgerald would have himself a killer argument.  The problem for Fitzgerald is that he asserts that there are "scores" of writers that do this but he then backs this up with ... well, absolutely nothing.  He doesn't quote or even cite any of these "scores" of writers - "both Roman and Jewish" - detailing any other Jewish preachers, prophets, wonder workers or Messianic claimants but neglecting to mention Jesus.  He doesn't even tell us who they are.  He just claims they exist and then ... well, nothing.

This is because they don't exist and his claim is complete garbage.  Which means his whole argument collapses.

We do indeed know about other Jewish preachers, prophets, wonder workers and Messianic claimants from this time.  There are quite a few of them, as I noted in my review when I named the most relevant of them.  But we don't know about them from Fitzgerald's non-existent "scores" of writers.  We know about them from one writer: Josephus.  And he does mention Jesus - twice.

This put Fitzgerald in something of pickle when I noted this garbage argument (which makes up the bulk of his second chapter, or 29 pages of the 215 in his book).  So he responded with ridiculous bluster and a clumsy attempt at a dodge.

First we get this:

Incidentally, perhaps this is a good time to mention the real reason I didn’t list them all out: Nailed was distilled down from a manuscript that was originally not 250 pages, but nearly a whopping 700 pages. So in fact, there’s a lot of information that I don’t mention, and many hard choices I had to make about what to include and what to leave out in a book that’s intended to be a reader-friendly intro to the subject. 

So what we are supposed to accept is that, despite the fact this argument requires him to not merely "list out" all these supposed writers  (he actually lists precisely none), but to indicate who he's talking about and to quote and cite them "detailing" these other Jewish preachers, prophets, wonder workers and Messianic claimants while not mentioning Jesus, Fitzgerald didn't do so because ... he didn't have space.  As excuses go, this is on a par with "the dog ate my homework".

But it gets worse.  This wholly feeble excuse is followed by this:

Annnnyway, here’s where O’Neill makes my point for me. He proceeds to name a few would-be messiahs from the first century .... None of these failed messiahs, prophets and rabble-rousers succeeded anywhere near as well as our Jesus of Nazareth. But every one of these loser messiahs did beat Jesus on one crucial matter: all of them managed to leave a trace in the contemporary historical record - so why couldn’t Jesus?

But the flaw in Fitzgerald's  argument does not lie in the lack of "would-be messiahs".  As he says, I listed plenty of those.  What Fitzgerald skips around here is that the problem lies with the complete  lack of these alleged (dare I say it mythical) "plenty" or even "scores" of writers who mention these other figures but fail to mention Jesus.  He claims these writers exist and then backs that claim up with ... nothing.

And these people pretend they can't get taken seriously by real scholars because of some vast academic conspiracy.  Any rational person can see that someone like Fitzgerald can't be taken seriously because he can't back up his claims and keep his key arguments from collapsing in a heap.  Bluster doesn't obscure basic incompetence.

Obscurity and Fame in the Ancient World

Like most Mythicist arguments, those in Fitzgerald's book work best against the Jesus of a literal or face value reading of the gospels but lose almost all of their power against the historical Jesus of the mainstream, middle ground scholarship that he deliberately chooses to ignore and obscure.  So he argues that if Jesus was such a big deal, he should have been noticed.  As he says in the conclusion to his second chapter:

If Jesus really lived and died and returned from the dead in the early first century, it didn't seem to make an impact until the end of the first century. (p. 49)

The idea that someone rose from the dead and yet this didn't get noticed or noted by anyone at the time is unlikely has at least some strength, but this is an argument against them rising from the dead, not against the existence of a peasant preacher.  That a peasant preacher had stories about them told after their death and their sect didn't get noticed for several decades afterwards actually makes perfect sense.

Fitzgerald insists that the other Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants managed to get mentioned (all, it should be noted, solely by Josephus) despite the fact that their actions were what he calls "lesser exploits" compared to those of Jesus.  But, as I noted in my review, several of these others seem to have been much more prominent than Jesus and their exploits were far from "lesser".  As I argued, Athronges, the Samaritan prophet, Theudas and the Egyptian all seem to have had followers in the thousands and be significant enough to require the dispatch of several units of Roman troops.  That's far and above anything even the gospels claim about Jesus.

I went on to argue that even if we take the gospels at face value about his significance, his entry into Jerusalem and his trial, he is nowhere near as significant and had nothing like the following of these others.  Which makes Fitzgerald's "lesser exploits" argument complete nonsense.  My point was, fairly obviously, that the gospels are almost certainly talking up his prominence, his following and the impact of his arrival in Jerusalem, yet even if we were to accept them as wholly true on these points, he still comes out as the figure who is "lesser" than these other more significant Jewish agitators - a guy whose whole movement can be shattered by a simple arrest by a squad of Temple guards in a garden and not requiring cavalry squadrons and cohorts of auxilia.

Bizarrely, Fitzgerald completely misreads this.  He decides that I was saying that even if we take what the gospels say about Jesus overall at face value - angels, heavenly voices, miracles, earthquakes, risen saints and ascension and all - he was still less significant than Athronges and Theudas et. al.  Which is not remotely close to what I said.  Again, it's hard to know if this sort of weak misrepresentation is due to basic incompetence, petty malice or a combination of both.

To highlight how easily a peasant nobody like Jesus could very easily pass without any surviving contemporary notice at all, I held up the example of someone at the other end of the scale of fame and significance to Jesus and who, despite this, also has zero contemporary references that have survived to us.  Hannibal was about as far from a Jewish peasant preacher in terms of fame and significance as you could get in the ancient world, yet we have no contemporary references to him at all.  None. This shows that the nature of ancient source material is such that we have contemporary references for virtually nobody, including people much more significant than Jesus.  So making an argument about the existence of any ancient figure based on the lack or otherwise of contemporary references is patently ridiculous; doubly so for a peasant preacher.

Never one to let a potential petty blow go unstruck, Fitzgerald leapt on the fact that we do have a paragraph of what is most likely a contemporary source about Hannibal: P.Würzb.Inv. 1 is a papyrus fragment that seems to contain a few lines from Book IV of Sosylus' The Deeds of Hannibal. I was gracious enough to note this in an edit to my review, though I also pointed out this still doesn't invalidate my point - the fragment makes no mention of Hannibal and we still have zero contemporary mentions of him.

Not content with that, Fitzgerald then grandly declares "O’Neill is unaware that we do have at least one complete and contemporary account of Hannibal in book three of Polybius of Megalopolis’ The Histories." As we'll see in a moment, Fitzgerald consistently misfires when he makes these assumptions about what material I am and am not "aware" of.  Of course I'm aware of Polybius.  I'm also aware that his account of Hannibal's campaigns is not a contemporary mention of him - that work was begun around 167 BC but was later extended to cover events up to 146 BC and it seems he continued to work on the book until his death in 119 BC.  This means his account of Hannibal dates to c. 30-60 years after Hannibal's death in 182 BC, depending on how you look at it.  

When I said there are no contemporary references to Hannibal, I had naturally already taken the date of Polybius' work into account.  Of course, I'd be happy to graciously grant Fitzgerald that a work written 30-60 years after the death of Hannibal is "contemporary" on the proviso he's consistent and therefore rules the synoptic gospels to be "contemporary sources" as well, given they were written 40-60 years after Jesus.  But somehow I don't think he's going to do that. 

On to Josephus

In a typically brazen distortion, Fitzgerald's book tries to dismiss the idea that the mention of Jesus in Antiquities XVIII.3.4  - the testimonium - is at least partially original to Josephus as something that "wishful apologists try to argue", rather than the consensus opinion of objective scholars across the board.  Though in his reply to my critique he is forced to admit that this is not some desperate position by "wishful apologists" and he says "O’Neill rightly notes that the majority of scholars accept the passage as at least partially authentic".  Absolutely, though no-one reading his book would know that, given the distorted way he presents the arguments - something he does throughout his work, as has been noted above.  But he tries to rescue his position with this:

 ... but what he fails to add (if he even realizes) is that the “Partially Authentic,” or Reconstuctionist camp is the largest camp simply because scholarly opinion is so divided over the extent of tampering; it is a very large tent with lots of room for disagreement - and there is ferocious disagreement. 

Given the amount of study I've done on the subject, I'm naturally well aware of this - but he does love those weasely little parenthetical insinuations.  The point is that this simply doesn't matter.   How much of the passage is or isn't authentic is entirely beside the point: if any of it is an authentic mention of Jesus by Josephus, the Mythicist goose is well and truly cooked.  And the fact remains that the consensus of scholarship by experts Jewish, Christian, atheist, agnostic or Calathumpian is that Josephus did mention Jesus here.

But when I make the common-sense observation that if you take out the most obvious interpolations (the "he was the Christ" and "appeared to them alive again" elements) it reads like what we'd expect from Josephus, Fitzgerald is back to lumping these esteemed scholars in with "apologists" once again, saying "O’Neill (repeats) a dreadfully tired old line from the Christian apologists he despises".  Actually, I take this "line" from esteemed scholars I admire, such the late Geza Vermes, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of our time:

The Christian passages, those that cannot be ascribed to the Jew Josephus, are easily distinguishable .... Once the Christian supplements are removed, the original notice is reduced to the description of Jesus as "wise man" and "performer of paradoxical deeds", the epithet "Christ" attached to the name of Jesus; the crediting of the death sentence to Pilate; and the mention of the existence of the followers of Jesus at the time of the writing of the Testimonium in the 90s CE."(Geza Vermes, "Jesus in the Eyes of Josephus", Standpoint, Jan/Feb 2010) 

I'm sure if the late Professor Vermes was still with us he would be mildly amused to hear some self-published polemicist has lumped him in with Christian apologists.

Then Fitzgerald goes to work dismissing "the apologists" (you know, leading scholars like Vermes, Ehrman, Feldman, Whealey - "apologists" like that) on the grounds that "there is no consensus on what is 'obviously interpolated'".  Well, no there isn't.  Some think the phrase "for he was a doer of wonderous works" is one of the Christian interpolations.  Others note that the word used here - παράδοξα (paradoxa) - is used by Josephus twice elsewhere to describe the miracles of Elisha and so is a usage he may have made.  Some think the reference to "the tribe of the Christians" is an addition, on the grounds that he usually uses the word φυλή (phulē) as an designation for an ethnic group.  Others note he uses it more broadly elsewhere, to refer to the female gender or to a swarm of locusts, and so could be used by him to indicate a distinct group.

But there is a very clear consensus on the idea that "he was the Messiah" and "he appeared to them alive again on the third day" are obvious interpolations.  A couple of other phrases possibly are also, but we can still remove these elements and be left with a relatively laudatory passage much like Josephus' reference to John the Baptist (Antiquities XVIII.5.2).  Which is about what we'd expect from this writer, the only one of the time who had any interest in such figures.

Fitzgerald waxes emphatic about whether the passage contains distinctively Josephan language, stating baldly that "Josephan scholars Steve Mason and Ken Olson have both pointed out that the passage does not use Josephus’ characteristic language."  It's interesting, by the way, that leading experts on Josephus who hold the view that Fitzgerald doesn't like get repeatedly smeared as "apologists", yet Ken Olson, who is a graduate student at Duke University working toward his doctorate, is referred to as a "Josephan scholar".  It seems Fitzgerald just can't resist giving everying the maximum possible spin.

Olson has written some very good papers on the subject, though his conclusions are very much in the minority.  But the esteemed Josephan scholar Steve Mason would be rather surprised to find himself being cited in an argument against the partial authenticity of the testimonium, since he definitely supports the consensus position.  Mason does indeed note a couple of words in the passage which are unique or unusual (Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, pp169-170), but he then goes on to detail the solid reasons that most scholars accept partial authenticity, dismissing the more extreme view fairly curtly, stating:

To have created the testimonium out of whole cloth would be an act of unparalleled scribal audacity.
(Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, p. 171) 

He then proceeds to note that, while there are a couple of words which are unusual, "much of the rest is perfectly normal".  He follows this by detailing no less than six examples of distinctively Josephan language in the passage.  So it is very strange that Fitzgerald tries to marshal Mason to support his claim that there isn't distinctively Josephan language in the passage, when the weight of Mason's arguments and examples goes the opposite way.  It's almost as though he hasn't actually read Mason's book and is getting his information second or third hand; something Mythicists do quite a bit.

Pre-Eusebian References to Josephus’ Antiquities

Having failed to make one argument from silence work effectively, Fitzgerald’s response quickly attempts another one:

Perhaps the major giveaway is that this passage does not appear until the 4th century. For the first 300 years of its existence, there is no mention of the Testimonium anywhere. This couldn’t have been simply because no one happened to read it; Josephus’ histories were immensely popular and pored over by scholars.

Citing Michael Hardwick’s Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius he notes that “more than a dozen early Christian writers …. are known to have read and commented on the works of Josephus” and questions why none of them mentioned the testimonium.  That looks like a solid argument at first blush, until it’s realised it’s not “the works of Josephus” generally which are in scope here, but more specifically Antiquities alone; since that is where the testimonium is found.  After all, it’s not like these writers had access to a nice modern Complete Collected Works of Flavius Josephus edition from Loeb Classical Library.  Then we need to filter out the references to Antiquities which are derived via an intermediary rather from access to the work itself.  Once this more precise focus is applied to Fitzgerald’s usual hyperbole, his “more than a dozen” quickly shrivels to perhaps just five.  And even that is being extremely generous.

Filter things down to this relevant evidence and we are left with:

(i)                 Methodius, On the Resurrection, (II.18) – Methodius cites Josephus on the destruction of the Temple, though whether he’s referring to Antiquities or the Jewish War is unclear.

(ii)               Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, (I.21) – Clement makes an argument about the antiquity of Jewish thought and gives calculations of the years back to Moses based mainly on the Jewish War, but which Hardwick and Whealey argue probably also contains elements from Antiquities.

(iii)             Irenaean fragments XXXII.53 – This cites Josephus talking about Moses.  Whealey thinks this is based on Antiquities Bk II, but it’s hard to see how Irenaeus could also have read the later books of Antiquities, given that he was under the impression Jesus had been crucified in the reign of Claudius, whereas Josephus specifically says in Bk XVIII that Pilate was removed during the reign of Tiberius.  So he may have been basing this on a second hand reference or only had access to the earlier books of the work.

(iv)             Anatolius of Alexandria, Pascal Canon, 3 – Writing on the dating of Passover, Anatolius  makes a general reference to evidence from Josephus and Philo, though it’s hard to tell from it if he has actually read either or which Josephan work he’s referring to.

(v)               Origen, Contra Celsus I.6, I.47, IV.11 and Commentary on Matthew X.17, all of which clearly reference Antiquities.

Of these, the only writer that gives us any definite indication of having actually read the relevant section of Antiquities is Origen.  And Origen speaks twice of how Josephus “did not accept Jesus as Messiah”, which indicates that the version of Josephus he read did contain something like the reference to Jesus in Antiquities XVIII.9.1 before it had been added to (see below). 

This touches a point that Mythicists always seem to miss when trying to use this argument from silence – if the original form of the testimonium simply said Jesus was “said to be the Messiah” and that he was crucified etc. where and why would early Christian writers need to reference this?  It’s not like there were any Jesus Mythers in the second or third centuries they could use this passage against, so when and where would they need to use it?  As a piece of testimony in the debates they were having – about Jesus’ status as Messiah, for example, or about him rising from the dead – the posited likely  original form of the passage would have been entirely useless. 

Indeed, the very elements in the textus receptus of the testimonium which the textual evidence indicates are later additions are precisely the ones which turn this passage into something useful in the debates of the time.  Having a Jew declare Jesus to be the Messiah (as opposed to simply being called the Messiah) and to declare that he did appear alive again on the third day (as opposed to this simply being believed by others) transforms this unremarkable brief mention into a powerful argument against Jewish opponents.  But if, as most scholars agree, these elements were later additions, the original would have contained nothing of much use to the (as the analysis above shows) very small number of Pre-Nicean Christian writers who had access to a copy of Bk XVIII of the Antiquities.  In other words, the “silence” of this tiny number of writers is entirely explicable.  

Pines, Whealey and the Testamonia of Agapius and Michael the Syrian

Fitzgerald then goes into some detail on why he ignored the highly pertinent textual evidence of additions and emendations to the testimonium provided by the variant versions found in Agapius and Michael the Syrian.  These variants exhibit differences in the very elements in the textus receptus version which seem most likely to be later Christian additions to the Josephan text.  But since Fitzgerald has held up Steve Mason as an authority, I'll give his summary of the significance of this evidence as a usefully succinct one:
(T)he existence of alternative versions of the testimonium has encouraged many scholars to think that Josephus must have written something close to what we find in them, which was later edited by Christian hands.  If the laudatory version in Eusebius and our text of Josephus were the free creation of Christian scribes, who then created the more restrained versions found in Jerome, Agapius and Michael?  The version of Agapius is especially noteworthy because it eliminates, though perhaps too neatly, all of the major difficulties in standard text of Josephus …. Agapius’ version of the testimonium sounds like something a Jewish observer of the late first century could have written about Jesus and his followers. (Mason, p. 172)
But, of course, if these variants indicate Josephus’ reference to Jesus was merely “edited by Christian hands” the Mythicist case is critically weakened.  They need the whole passage to be "the free creation of Christian scribes”.  This is why Fitzgerald crows that “several years ago historian Alice Whealey conclusively proved both these claims wrong”.

Like Creationists, many Mythicists use counter-arguments that have taken on an almost folkloric form – they haven’t actually read the scholarship on a given point themselves, but they have seen other Mythicists cite it and so they do so as well.  So I’ve seen this “Alice Whealey has dismissed the idea that the textual variants indicate later Christian additions” idea invoked several times before.  Each time it emerged that the Mythicist in question had not actually read Whealey’s dense and quite excellent paper on the question.

So, after a summary of Pines’ cautious arguments, Fitzgerald triumphantly declares:

Alice Whealey made her rather conclusive case (see Alice Whealey, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic,” New Testament Studies 54.4 (2008) pp. 573-90) that even the once-much-touted Arabic version of the Testimonium actually also derives from... you guessed it - Eusebius, by way of an intermediary Syriac version, and so long story short, neither of these medieval Arabic or Syriac texts came from Josephus. Which is why I didn’t include any of this wild goose chase in Nailed. Which, if O’Neill really kept up with Josephan studies as much as he’d like us all to think, he should have known all along...

Unfortunately for Fitagerald, I have indeed "kept up with" Josephan studies; which is why I am well aware of Whealey's article.  This is also why I know that, far from somehow debunking the idea that the variant testamonia of Agapius and Michael point to an original, unedited version of Josephus' text, she actually supports and refines it.

Whealey's article is closely argued and complex and she argues persuasively that Schlomo Pines was on the right track when he pointed to the versions of the testimonium in Agapius and Michael as evidence that the mention of Jesus in Antiquities XVIII.3.4 was original to Josephus, but added to later by Christians.  But she notes that since Pines wrote in 1971 there has been extensive work done on the relationship between Agapius' Arabic chronicle and the Syriac one by Michael and on their most likely common sources and their interrelations.  Drawing on this more recent work, Whealey reassess Pines' analysis and draws some different conclusions.

Whealey disagrees with Pines that it's Agapius' version of the testimonium that most closely reflects what Josephus wrote and argues that it is actually Michael the Syrian's Syriac version that does so:

(I)n arguing that Michael's Testimonium, which is generally close to the textus receptus Testimonium and which has clearly been taken from a recension of the Syriac Historia Ecclesiastica, is more authentic than Agapius’ Testimonium, this study implies that the textus receptus Testimonium is much closer to the passage that Josephus originally wrote about Jesus than is often assumed. 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’. (Whealey, p. 588) 

So what Whealey actually argues is that both Agapius and Michael got their versions of the testimonium from a common source - probably James of Edessa - which in turn used "a recension of the Syriac Historia Ecclesiastica".  And the pertinent point here, given Fitzgerald's erroneous "long story short" summary above, is that she argues this recension of the Syriac translation of Eusebius Historia read "thought to be the Messiah" rather than "he was the Messiah".  She also notes Jerome's Latin translation of the testimonium has a very similar phrasing:

 Since it is scarcely credible that the writers could have independently modified the Testimonium in this same way their readings must reflect an original Greek Testimonium reading something like 'he was believed to be the Christ'. Jerome's translation reading 'credebatur esse Christus' is highly significant because the earliest manuscripts of his De viris illustribus, the work in which his translation of the Testimonium appears, date to the sixth or seventh century; thus they are several centuries older than the earliest Greek manuscripts of Book 18 of Josephus’ Antiquities or of Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica. (Whealey, p. 581)   

 Thus she concludes that both the Syriac version of Eusebius and Eusebius' original text both referred to Jesus as merely being "thought to be the Messiah", with Eusebius, like Josephus, being amended later.  Jerome and the Syriac recension that lies behind Agapius and Michael therefore reflect both an unedited version of Eusebius and, ultimately, the original text of Josephus' testimonium.  Interestingly, she also note that "because this reading is independently supported by Jerome’s very early translation of the Testimonium, .... it can readily explain Origen’s claim that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah." (p. 588).

 There are possible counter-arguments to this, of course, as there always are with any such argument.  But the issue here is how on earth Fitzgerald could have read all these references in Whealey's article to what "Josephus originally wrote about Jesus" (p. 588) and "Josephus' original text about Jesus" (p. 587) and yet try to use Whealey's article to argue against the idea that Josephus originally mentioned Jesus.  And his "long story short" summary above shows clearly that he didn't understand what Whealey was saying about the implications of Jerome and the Syriac Historia's version of Eusebius at all.  Again, it's almost as though he didn't even read Whealey's article and was just parroting some bungled Mythicist folklore about it.  Or if he did read it, he clearly didn't understand it.  Again, we see evidence of either crippling ideological bias or abject scholarly incompetence.

 On to Origen 

In my review I took Fitzgerald to task for this complete misreading/misrepresentation of a relevant passage from Origen:

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) 

He cites Contra Celsum I.47 but, as I noted, Origen does not say that "Josephus didn't believe in Jesus", just that he was "not believing in Jesus as the Christ".  More importantly, Fitzgerald's repeated claim that Origen "criticises (Josephus) for failing to mention Jesus in (Antiquties)" is a bizarrely distorted reading of what Origen actually says:

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. (Contra Celsum I.47)

Origen clearly takes Josephus to task for failing to attribute the fall of Jerusalem to Jesus, but says nothing about "failing to mention Jesus".  This is entirely in Fitzgerald's imagination, not in the text.  Of course, Fitzgerald doesn't actually quote Origen in his book, so his readers can't tell that what he claims is a fantasy.
In response, Fitzgerald simply asks "how can O’Neill deny that Origen is not doing exactly what I said he did: criticizing Josephus for not mentioning Jesus? Read it again - it’s right there in black and white"  He then quotes Origen's phrase "... he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities ...", as though chiding Josephus for not attributing the calamities to Jesus' execution is somehow criticising him for not mentioning him at all.  That Fitzgerald can't see this is a complete non sequitur speaks volumes about his weird bias and/or his scholarly incompetence.

In my critique I note that, far from Origen criticising Josephus for not mentioning Jesus, he directly quotes Josephus doing so and does so in three separate places.  In Antiquities XX.9.1 the phrase Josephus uses is τον αδελφον Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου ("the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah").  In Origen's Commentarium in evangelium Matthaei X.17 we find the identical phrase: τον αδελφον Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου.  In Contra Celsum II:13 we find it again: τον αδελφον Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου.  And in  Contra Celsum I.47 we find it with one word changed to fit the context of the sentence grammatically: αδελφος Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου.

Fitzgerald's response?  He waves away these multiple clear textual parallels in no less than three places on the grounds that Origen doesn't explicitly state that he is quoting Josephus and with the silly note that in Origen's time there were no quotation marks.  To dismiss this patently obvious evidence that Origen's text of Josephus did include the key phrase "the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah" in such a weak manner is simply pathetic.

But he has to try to dismiss it, because if the text included that vital phrase as early as Origen's time, then the whole contrived Mythicist scenario whereby it was added by a Christian scribe collapses - Origen was writing far too early (mid-third century AD) for Christian scribes to be doctoring the text of Josephus.  And the Josephan passage Origen is referring to here represents the biggest fly in the Mythicist ointment.

Josephus on the Execution of James

The second reference to Jesus in Josephus - the one in Antiquities XX.9.1 - is much more problematic for the Jesus Mythers, since here the scholarly consensus that it is genuine is overwhelming.   Mythicists display a remarkable virtuosity when it comes to piling up suppositions to make this reference in Josephus' account of the deposition of the high priest Hanan ben Hanan go away.  They try various tactics, but most fall back on yet another manifestation of their stand-by argument whenever things get difficult for them: interpolation.  They argue that the passage is authentic, but the part where Josephus says the James he is discussing is the brother of a Jesus "who was called Messiah" is a Christian interpolation.  Therefore, they claim, the Jesus in question is the "Jesus, son of Damneus" mentioned a few lines later and not Jesus of Nazareth.

Following his "mentor and hero" Carrier, Fitzgerald argues that "the James Reference is an accidental interpolation or scribal emendation and that that passage was never originally about Jesus Christ but Jesus ben Damneus (The Jesus who is actually mentioned in the passage, and fits the context!)" and he dismisses the references to it by Origen noted above by claiming that what Origen says about the James passage doesn't reflect what Josephus wrote and so can't be taken as evidence that the phrase "who was called Messiah" was in Josephus' text in the mid-third century AD. 

Fitzgerald's treatment of this in his book seems to have been a truncated summary of an argument his mentor has since made in more detail in one of the few pieces of actual peer-reviewed scholarship he's had published - "Origen, Eusebius and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.200", Journal of Early Christian Studies, 20, 4, 2012, pp. 489-514.  Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, his hero's argument has several critical flaws.

Like Fitzgerald, Carrier argues that Origen can't be used as evidence that Josephus' text originally included the key phrase "the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah" because, as he puts it "Josephus neither says, in AJ 20.200 or anywhere else, that James’s execution caused the fall of Jerusalem" (Carrier, p. 499).  Having dismissed the idea that Origen was referring to Josephus on the grounds that Josephus doesn't actually blame the fall of Jerusalem on the death of James, Carrier then contrives an alternative explanation whereby Origen actually muddled Josephus with Hegesippus.

But a scholarly article is meant to address or at least acknowledge alternative arguments, preferably by dealing with them comprehensively, and there is a solid body of scholarship that deals with why Origen would say that Josephus "says" the fall of Jerusalem was punishment for the execution of James when Josephus clearly says no such thing.  Both Wataru Mizugaki and Zvi Baras detail why Origen would claim this about Josephus is two separate papers in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (Wayne State University Press, 1987) - see W. Mizugaki, "Origen and Josephus" pp. 325-337 and Z. Baras, "The Testimonium Flavianum and the Martyrdom of James", pp. 338-348.  As Mizugaki explains, Origen was not a historian looking at his sources with some form of objectivity.  He was a Christian exegete, looking at them through the distorting lens of his religious convictions.  So he tended to see his sources "say" things that aren't actually there.

Mizugaki gives several other examples of where Origen claims Josephus "says" things that he does not actually say and even one example where Origen alters Josephus' text to make it better fit the exegetical point he's trying to make (Mizugaki, p. 333).  In Fragment 115 of Fragmenta in Lamentationes Origen discusses Lamentations 4:19 and claims "Josephus reports that even the mountains did not save those who were trying to escape".  Except nowhere in any of Josephus' works does he "report" this at all - Origen is reading his Christian theology into his understanding of both Lamentations and Josephus.  Mizugaki argues:

As we have noted, by citing and using Josephus to his own purpose, Origen interprets his historical account from his theological viewpoint and adapts it to his interpretation of the Bible. (Mizugaki, p. 333)
In the same way, the sequence of events following the execution of James could easily be read by an exegete to lead directly from the death of James to the fall of Jerusalem, even though Josephus in no way makes that link.  Josephus details how Ananus' fall from his former position encouraged him to wield influence through bribery and currying favour with gifts thanks to wealth he gained from extortionate religious taxes (XX.9.2). This led to the sicarii rebels (the villains of Josephus' account of the Jewish War) targeting him via the kidnapping of his son, Eleazar, forcing Ananus to lean on Albinus to release captured sicarii  in exchange for his son (XX.9.3).This was followed by Albinus trying to gain favour with the increasingly fractious priests by releasing even more sicarii rebels so that "the prisons were indeed emptied, but the country was filled with rebel bandits" (XX.9.5). He presents this sequence of events as the precursors of the procuratorship of Gessius Florus and as the background to the environment of political dispute, rebel banditry and Roman violence and oppression which triggered the rebellion that he had already detailed in his earlier work, the Jewish War.

Naturally we can see that Josephus isn't saying these things happened because of the execution of James and isn't connecting James to them in anything but an incidental way.  But Origen didn't read his sources that way - he read them through the lenses of faith and "saw" connections and causes in this sequence of events where Josephus details how "as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually" and how this sequence led to the fall of Jerusalem. For Origen the place of the execution of James in this sequence was not hoc post hoc but rather hoc propter hoc

The idea that James' death was somehow cosmically linked to the fall of Jerusalem seems to have been around long before Origen and is also reflected in Hegesippus, who gives his account of James execution and then notes "And shortly after Titus besieged Judea , taking them captive".  We find the same trope in Eusebius (though here obviously following Origen) and Jerome and it's also implied in some Gnostic traditions regarding James.

That Origen was reading this Christian trope into Josephus makes far more sense than Carrier's convoluted alternative and is based on Origen doing what he says he's doing - referring to Josephus.  Carrier's alternative requires a string of contrived suppositions, which means Occam's Razor favours Mizugaki's far neater explanation.  Strangely, neither the highly relevant papers by Mizugaki and Baras nor the prominent collection edited by Feldman and Hata in which they appear can be found anywhere in Carrier's footnotes.

Carrier's contrived scenario requires a number of suppositions to be true for his removal of the key phrase to work and for his alternative reading to be correct.  Amongst them is the requirement for Josephus to have originally referred to James by reference to his brother in one sentence and then to refer to Jesus son of Damneus by reference to their (supposed) father in the next.  This is contrary to the very careful and consistent way Josephus introduces and differentiates between members of the same family thoughout his work - and yes, I've re-read the whole of Antiquties with this question in mind to check on this.  However you cut it, Carrier's thesis does not stand up to Occam's Razor and, like all his work, it's an ad hoc way to get to an ideological objective: removing a key piece of evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus.  Not that Carrier sees things that way.  He is very impressed with his article - so much so that he gives it a ringing endorsement in its final paragraph:

The significance of this finding is manifold, but principally it removes this passage from the body of reliable evidence for the fate of Jesus’ family, the treatment of Christians in the first century, or Josephus’s attitude toward or knowledge of Christians. Likewise, future commentaries on the relevant texts of Origen and Josephus must take this finding into account, as must any treatments of the evidence for the historical Jesus. Most pressingly, all reference works that treat “James the brother of Jesus” must be emended to reflect this finding, particularly as this passage is the only evidence by which a date for this James’ death has been derived. (Carrier, p. 514)
In almost 30 years of reading scholarly articles from a range of fields I have never come across one that included such a fatuous, unprofessional, arrogant and patently immature pronouncement.  When this ludicrous proclaimation was brought to Bart Ehrman's attention he commented wryly "No timidity there!".  This pompous nonsense speaks volumes about Carrier's ludicrous narcissism. But that seems to be what performing for a peanut gallery of fawning acolytes like Fitzgerald will do for someone who once had a chance at a genuine academic career.


There were other counter-arguments in Fitzgerald's response, but they were mostly nitpicks and trivia of the petty kind the Jesus Mythers seem to love. This post is already weighing in at over 12,000 words and I think I've done enough to counter Fitzgerald's most substantial points and demonstrate his fundamental incompetence.  He cited Mason as supporting him when anyone who reads Mason can see he does the opposite.  He cited Whealey in a way that shows he either didn't read her article or didn't understand it.  And his key argument rests on the supposition-laden thesis of his tendentious and hopelessly biased mentor, which doesn't take account of the full range of relevant scholarship and is fundamentally flawed.

Not that any of this will convince Fitzgerald - fanatics don't change their minds.  But for those who asked me to respond to his points, I hope my work above has shown why once you winnow away all his response's pomposity, bluster, sneering insults and bile, there is pretty much nothing there.  Which effectively sums up the whole Jesus Myth coterie all around.