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A Response to David Skrbina

[1]

Francesco Trevisani, Saint Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius, 1709.

2,482 words

See James O’Meara’s review of The Jesus Hoax here [2] and David Skrbina’s reply here [3].

First off, I want to relieve Prof. Skrbina of his concern over my “grudge” against him. I happened upon this book (and in a burst of synchronicity, was asked by our esteemed editor at Counter-Currents to review it), but was unfamiliar with Skrbina’s work to begin with. That, of course, means nothing, as I am not an academic myself. But a brief glance at his Amazon listing led me to take a positive interest in him, from his teaching at an institution just a few blocks from where my parents lived back in the day, to his other publications, which indicate a remarkable convergence of our interests, from Savitri Devi to pansychism. I am particularly interested in the latter — I think it is wrong, but important [1] [4] — and was planning to write something on or around it soon.

And, obviously, we share an avocational interest in the origins of Christianity.

Prof. Skrbina is unhappy with my schematic of his argument (“a rather comical distortion”) and offers his own:

  1. If Jesus was a miracle-man, there would be contemporaneous evidence.
  2. There is no such evidence.
  3. Therefore, no miracle-man.
  4. Years later, Paul and the Gospel writers claimed there was such a miracle-man.
  5. They lied.
  6. And, they lied with an intent to benefit their fellow Jews. Hence it was a malicious lie, or a hoax.

I think my version, even if perhaps comical or distorted, does foreground the tone of his book, and its main argument, which for the purposes of a review I wanted to concentrate on. He does indeed set up his main premise by showing the miracle-working Jesus story can’t be true (including a helpful chart of miracles), but this is hardly controversial today. Thus, the first three steps provide a sound argument. And the next step is obviously true. But notice that the movement from step 4 to step 5 is exactly as I indicated in my review: the story is false, therefore someone lied; as is the step from 5 to 6: and they lied to benefit themselves, and hence maliciously.

Skrbina provides no evidence for either step. He seems to think step 5 is just obvious, and gets quite querulous, especially in his reply, to any other theory, such as a veridical account of a hallucination, or a cover-story for neophytes in a mystery religion; despite the overwhelming number of similar cases of each in history. [2] [5]

And for step 6, the motive, he provides only evidence of the Jews being nasty people, and especially being liars. Of course, short of Philip Roth’s note in a bottle from Uncle Morty (“We did it. We killed Christ”), it’s hard to imagine what evidence there could be; perhaps the protocols of their secret meeting?

I want to address Skrbina’s assertion that I “claim without evidence” that there were admirers of the Jews in the Hellenistic world. I hyperlinked to a page [6] in my review describing the well-known “God Fearers,” gentiles who were attracted to the supposedly strict morality of Jewish culture and the antiquity of their scriptures, and with plenty of citations; thus:

Over the last 50 years a growing number of scholars of Judaic studies and history of Judaism became interested in the subject of God-fearers and their relationship with Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity.

As Jews emigrated and settled in the Roman provinces of the Empire, Judaism became an appealing religion to a number of Pagans, for many reasons; God-fearers and proselytes that underwent full conversion were Greeks or Romans, and came from all social classes: they were mostly women and freedmen (liberti), but there were also artisans, soldiers and few people of high status, like patricians and senators. Despite their allegiance to Judaism, the God-fearers were exempted from paying the “Jewish tax” (fiscus Judaicus).

The class of God-fearers existed between the 1st and the 3rd century CE. They are mentioned in Latin and Greek literature, Flavius Josephus’ and Philo’s historical works, rabbinic literature, early Christian writings, and other contemporary sources such as synagogue inscriptions from Diaspora communities [in] Palestine, Rome and Asia Minor. [3] [7]

[8]

You can buy James O’Meara’s book Green Nazis in Space! here. [9]

It was these God Fearers who provided the audience for Paul’s circumcision-and-kosher-free religion. Like being a pre-op transsexual, Paul’s version of Christianity allowed God-fearers to LARP as Jews, without surgery, thus allowing his version of Christianity to make great strides and eventually become dominant; [4] [10] indeed, the existence of other strains of Christianity before and alongside Paul completely blows his “Paul dreamed it up” thesis out of the historical waters. [5] [11]

I regret that Prof. Skrbina wants to revisit his comments on Prof. Price and Richard Carrier, as the nub of my criticism was that these comments had no business in his book at all. His description of Price in his reply is pure sophistry; he would have you think that Price is simply a “former Baptist minister who, for some reason, became agnostic regarding a historical Jesus” but refuses to assent to Skrbina’s “the Jews did it” thesis because “he is full-time in the ‘Jesus business’” and perhaps needs to make money to fund his old age; rather than being — unlike Prof. Skrbina — a full-time professor of New Testament studies and holder of two earned doctorates in the subject. He then weirdly criticizes Price for failing to “assert a positive theory about anything” or “hold any overtly controversial views,” as if having an open mind and admitting where one is ignorant are character flaws, and as if asserting controversial views was not a great way to sell books. [6] [12]

As for Richard Carrier, Prof. Skrbina shows some uncharacteristic restraint; a glance at his Wikipedia page reveals many aspects of his private life that would make him persona non grata among readers here, but he confines himself to the usual academic slurs. He then offers some relevant criticism. Yes, Jesus from Outer Space is a silly title, but being someone who published a book entitled Magick for Housewives, I can hardly hold that against him. [7] [13] Evaluating Bayes Theorem is beyond me (and most academic historians, apparently [14]) but JfOS is intended as a brief, non-mathematical discussion of Mythicism, to which I recommend the readers here.

Then we get a sample of how Carrier and Skrbina differ on evaluating textual evidence. To show that Paul “believed in a flesh-and-blood Jesus,” Skrbina asserts that “Galatians calls Jesus ‘born of a woman’ (4:4).” Carrier devotes as many pages as Skrbina does to documenting how much the Jews were hated to an examination of Romans 1:3 and Galatians 3-4, emphasizing that the word Paul uses for “born” is never used by him to refer to human birth but rather to the “making” of a human, like Adam from the dust or Eve from Adam’s rib (a problem Christian scribes immediately realized, since Historicist Bart Ehrman says they attempted to “correct” the manuscripts they were copying [8] [15]). The whole argument in Galatians is allegorical, with the ultimate goal of making Jesus’ birth a fulfillment of the prophecy that “David’s seed” would “eternally rule” (obviously false for several hundred years by then) through YHVH placing David’s sperm in a cosmic sperm bank and then using it to create a humanoid to insert into a virgin to be named later. Carrier may be wrong. But which author looks like “a Baptist preacher” quoting a passage in translation, and which looks like a serious researcher?

Wait a second, I hear you say, “cosmic sperm bank”? Ridiculous. Indeed, but plausible in the context of the “open-air insane asylum” of First Century Palestine. [9] [16] Speaking of which, and in another synchronicity (and another reason I’m eager to read Prof. Skrbina on pansychicism), I was finally getting around to reading Carrier’s new book last night, and I marked this passage as “Carrier’s answer to Skrbina”:

What makes a theory plausible or implausible is not what we now in the modern age think is normal or weird, but what was normal or weird in the era and region this actually happened in. Too many scholars today seem to be relying on their modernist intuitions, balking at [or calling “lies”] all the weird things the ancients believed — which is exactly backward. All that weird stuff they believed back then was normal. So anything that coheres with it is plausible. That’s how plausibility operates in historical reasoning. Anything else is anachronism.

So I would suggest that Skrbina’s thesis, “This story is absurd, therefore whoever concocted it must have been lying” is not an argument, but an expression of chronological snobbery [17][10] [18] With, I think, the best will in the world, I don’t see that the absurdity of the Christian story entails it must be a lie; and, even if it is a lie, there are other, better argued-for suspects than Paul & the Gang, such as Joseph Atwill’s “the Romans concocted it with the help of Josephus” (Caesar’s Messiah) and Flavio Barbiero’s “the Jewish priests used it to take over the Mithras cult (The Secret Society of Moses; see Laurent Guyenot’s discussion here [19]).

Still, as I said in my review, the book would be useful for someone interested in learning some of the basic issues and names in this area, as a preliminary to doing his own research, not unlike a mystery religion cover story.

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Notes

[1] [20] See the critique offered by Bernardo Kastrup in Why Materialism Is Baloney: How True Skeptics Know There Is No Death and Fathom Answers to Life, the Universe and Everything (John Hunt, 2014). Discover Magazine says [21] “Philosopher David Chalmers once suggested that a foray into panpsychism is nigh inevitable once one thinks seriously about consciousness. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea is taking hold again. Though it is implausible, Chalmers writes [22], it is not any more implausible than other theories of consciousness.”

[2] [23] The mystery religion example has been around from Osiris to Scientology; as for hallucinations becoming written accounts, Richard Carrier (we’ll get to him in a minute) points out that this has been the settled, orthodox, academic, century-long consensus for the Resurrection story, so why not extend it to the whole Gospel?

[3] [24] For citations, see Louis H. Feldman, “The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers” [25]Biblical Archaeology Review 12, 5 (1986), Center for Online Judaic Studies. In my review I noted that Skrbina quotes Seneca on the Jews being lazy, due to the Sabbath; Feldman adds the passage that “the custom of this most accursed race has gained such influence that it has now been received throughout the world,” presumably by non-Jews who are “sympathizers.” So, if Seneca is an authority on the hatefulness of the Jews, then he also shows their customs were popular throughout the [Hellenistic] world. And again, I ask, does Skrbina work seven days a week? Should we?

[4] [26] In The Jesus Hoax, he imagines Paul musing: “We need them [the goyim] to be pro-Jewish, but not make them Jews — no, that would never work. We need something new, a “third way” between Judaism and paganism.” (p. 69). In fact, Paul would have known that this “third way” already existed.

[5] [27] Perhaps there were different versions of the hoax, being “test run”?

[6] [28] On the other hand, he berates Price for his Christ Mythicism, a definite and controversial view if ever there was one.

[7] [29] Retitled for the second edition as Mysticism after Modernism (Manticore, 2020). The (formerly) title essay dealt with the New Thought teacher Neville Goddard, and Constant Readers may recall that Neville (as he called himself) was already quite firmly in the Mythicist camp:

The Bible has no reference at all to any persons who ever existed or to any event that ever occurred upon earth. The ancient story tellers were not writing history but an allegorical picture lesson of certain basic principles which they clothed in the garb of history, and they adapted these stories to the limited capacity of a most uncritical and credulous people. Throughout the centuries we have mistakenly taken personifications for persons, allegory for history, the vehicle that conveyed the instruction for the instruction, and the gross first sense for the ultimate sense intended.

Thus begins “Consciousness Is The Only Reality” in Five Lessons: A Master Class (1948); reissued with a bonus chapter by Mitch Horowitz (New York: Tarcher/Perigree, 2018); reviewed here [30]. Neville’s view illustrates that, despite being dismissed by Skrbina and others as an internet fad, the Mythicist view has a long and distinguished history [31], back to the 18th century, and was beaten back only recently in the mid-20th century by a counter-attack from church-affiliated schools and professors.

[8] [32] The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford, 2011).

[9] [33] Was that Shaw or Nietzsche?

[10] [34] Skrbina explaining why the Christian story couldn’t be ingenuous:

This is theoretically possible but highly unlikelyEven in ancient times, people were not idiots. How could a Mark accept, without any apparent evidence or confirmation, such fantastic tales? And accept them so completely that he would write them down as factual truth, as real and actual events? And then how could the same thing happen three more times, to three different individuals? Furthermore, the Rumor Thesis cannot account for Paul. He was too close to actual events to have innocently believed any such stories, which in any case could not likely have become so incredibly exaggerated in a few years. Paul was a clever man; could he really have fallen so completely for a bogus tale of a Jewish messiah, that he would dedicate his life to spreading the story? It seems highly dubious, to say the leastAre there other possible theses? Perhaps, but I am unaware of any other plausible options. I think we must opt for one of these four.

I suppose the difference between “possible theses” and “plausible option” is, lacking appeal to Bayes’ Theorem, simply whatever Skrbina’s “modernist intuitions” approve. As Kevin MacDonald (another philo-Semite?) pointed out in his review [35],

This is presented as an issue of cleverness, and it is certainly true that there is a small but consistent negative correlation [36] between intelligence and religiosity. But the weakness of the association — explaining around four percent of the variance — indicates that there are plenty of intelligent people who are quite religious. This would have been even more likely in the ancient world — a context in which religion was taken very seriously, where miraculous events were taken for granted by many, and where there wasn’t already a long history of philosophical skepticism about religion, as there is in the contemporary West.