Recently, James O’Meara offered a fairly detailed review and critique of my book The Jesus Hoax. On the one hand, I want to thank him; as most writers know, any review is better than none at all! Any review is sure to prompt thoughts and debate on all sides of a given issue. On the other, it is a negative review — at times, unduly so — and hence I want to respond to some of his points and concerns. O’Meara seems very sensitive to certain issues, and there are certain possibilities that he seems unwilling to entertain. That is his right, of course. But this is highly problematic for a nominally neutral reviewer.
For the sake of the reader, we need to distinguish arguments and evidence from speculation and opinion. This is difficult with the Jesus story, to be sure, given that much is unknown, and much that is known is contradictory. Still, I think we can construct relatively plausible scenarios that best fit the known evidence. Anyone — from the most strident believer to the most atheistic skeptic — could in theory be mistaken, and we should always keep that in mind. I certainly could be wrong; but I think I have an idea of the most plausible, likeliest state of affairs, given all the available evidence. And I continue to assert, with Nietzsche and others, that the Jesus story is a scam, a fraud, and yes, a hoax, contrived by Paul and his cabal for the benefit of the Jews.
To begin with, consider who would dismiss this thesis immediately, without further discussion. I can think of two main groups: true-believing Christians, and Jews or Jewish advocates. If I am honest with myself, I think I have no hope of reaching these people. Christians will see this as a profound personal affront, and Jews (or their non-Jewish proxies) will see it as yet further impugning of the Jewish character. So be it. I thus direct my arguments to everyone else — the vast majority of humanity — who are in a position to think openly and skeptically about a miracle-man and his supposed mission of eternal salvation.
O’Meara’s review begins sympathetically enough, placing my book in line with the “increasingly accepted” (is it? evidence?) Christ Myth theory. Indeed, there are lots of variations on the notion of a Jesus myth, and lots of theoretically possible explanations. But most of the myth theories lack evidence or plausibility, and of the many conceivable explanations, only a few are actually reasonable.
A key starting point is whether a historical Jesus — a flesh and blood man — actually lived, or, whether no such man ever existed at all. We can call these the “merely mortal” Jesus theory versus the “purely fictional” Jesus theory. To emphasize: I am open to either theory. My hoax thesis works either way. However, I strongly suspect that a historical Jesus did live, did preach, was a rabble-rouser, and did get himself crucified by the Romans. The reason — my only reason — is that a hoax works much better based on a core of truth than on pure fiction. Hence, in my book and in what follows below, I assume there was a flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi, who lived and preached, and who got executed. But my thesis works either way.
O’Meara then offers a concise but caricatured version of my central argument. In condensed form, his version is as follows:
- Christianity is a lie
- All lies must have liars
- Contemporaneous with Jesus lived a “very bad man,” Paul
- Paul did it
This is a rather comical distortion. First, let’s get the basic argument straight:
- If Jesus was a miracle-man, there would be contemporaneous evidence.
- There is no such evidence.
- Therefore, no miracle-man.
- Years later, Paul and the Gospel writers claimed there was such a miracle-man.
- They lied.
- And, they lied with an intent to benefit their fellow Jews. Hence it was a malicious lie, or a hoax.
I take it that this is much more cogent, and much more plausible, than O’Meara’s caricature.
To elaborate a bit: If Jesus actually performed the claimed miracles, there would be extant evidence, such as documentation, either by Jews, pagans, or Romans — and likely all of these. But there is no such documentation or evidence at all: not during Jesus’ life (say, 0 to 30 AD), not during his ministry, and not for at least 20 years afterward. Paul, writing in the years 50 to 70 AD, speaks of a non-miraculous, stripped-down Jesus theology: he lived, he was crucified, he was risen, therefore we too can have eternal life. This is “evidence,” but biased, of course, and not the kind of third-party corroboration that we would like. The unknown Gospel writers, writing in the years 70 to 100 AD, give, for the first (and only) time in history, details of Jesus’ life and miracles, as if they are writing facts. Since their stories are almost certainly untrue, they too are liars.
Lastly, we know that most Jews, and especially the elite, well-educated Jews, detested Roman rule — ever since the Romans came marching into Palestine in 63 BC and overthrew the ruling Jewish tribes. (Somehow this key fact is always left out of our Mythicists’ books.) We also know, from centuries of well-documented and highly reputable commentary, that the Jews were hated by virtually all who encountered them. And we know from the Old Testament that the Jews, in turn, hated the Gentile masses (“we are chosen,” “we will rule over them,” “God gave this earth to us,” and so on.) Hence the most plausible motive: that Paul and his Jewish friends were looking for something, anything, that might pull the masses away from Rome, from the Roman worldview, and from the noble and successful values embodied in it. A quasi-Jewish “religion” (Jewish God, Jewish Jesus, Jewish Virgin Mary, etc), along with paganized incentives (eternal life in heaven) and superstitious fears (hell), might plausibly serve this purpose. It didn’t take an Einstein to figure this out.
Our reviewer then suggests that maybe Paul had a real vision, a real hallucination, of some sort, and sincerely believed he was talking to the Risen Christ, and thought he did receive a “mission” from him. If so, our man Paul was no liar, just a hallucinating psychopath who foisted his visions onto everyone around him. This, of course, is possible. We need to weigh this option against mine, in which Paul is a clever, learned, rational fellow who is stridently seeking the best for his fellow Jews, and is willing to lie for his cause. Separately, we need to take into account his fellow Gospel-writers; did they, too, have real hallucinations? Unlikely, to say the least. And yet their tales were more fantastical than Paul’s! The hallucination thesis fails miserably.
At a number of points in the review, it is clear that O’Meara prefers such mythicists as Robert Price and Richard Carrier to my own account. And yet, as I argued in my book, both have significant drawbacks — both in their personal backgrounds and in their theories. Price is a former Baptist minister who, for some reason, became “agnostic” regarding a historical Jesus. He has a lot of factual knowledge, and yet seems unable to assert a positive theory about anything. And the fact that he is, full-time, in the “Jesus business” ensures that he will not hold any overly controversial views, especially on the Jews. I have seen Price speak in person twice, and questioned him directly. He won’t commit to any real view; he knows nothing of Nietzsche and the more skeptical theories of the past; and most importantly, he has no motive for Paul (whether man or myth) or the Gospel writers. He can scarcely form a coherent conclusion. Price is good for sound bites, but little more.
Carrier is a younger and more inexperienced scholar. He was never a professor, never held a real academic position, and has published very few scholarly articles. His few books are with minor or obscure publishers. His latest book has the thoroughly unprofessional title of “Jesus from Outer Space.” His attempted use of Bayes’ Theorem is a failure; such theories work only on recurrent future events, not solitary past events. Carrier tenaciously clings to his “celestial Jesus” notion, suggesting that Paul (a real man, for him) and the Gospel writers never actually believed in a flesh-and-blood Jesus. And yet Galatians calls Jesus “born of a woman” (4:4); 1 Thessalonians states that “Jews killed Jesus” (can’t kill a celestial being); and Romans says Jesus “descended from David according to the flesh” (1:3). And all these works say explicitly that Jesus was “raised from the dead” — which can’t happen unless you were alive. The hoaxsters clearly had a live human being in mind. Furthermore, like Price, Carrier is utterly lacking in a motive for all the fairytales. He says simply that the Gospels were written “for a reason, even if we can’t always discern what that is.” He admits they were “forged,” but “not as a result of any organized conspiracy . . . but simply sharing similar motives.” This is not a coherent stance.
But what about O’Meara’s strongest argument: that “Paul” was not a single individual man, but perhaps a collection of individuals, or possibly even mythical himself. With no Paul, there can be no “artful liar” (as I call him), and thus no Jesus hoax — true? Hardly.
First, consider this quotation from Christian scholar and university chemist John Oakes:
As far as I know, there is not a single reputable scholar, including atheists, Jews, Muslims, skeptics or anyone from any background who is a historian or scholar, who doubts that Paul was a real person. Even the real fringe people who (against all scholarly evidence) doubt the reality of Jesus — even they do not have the nerve to claim that Paul was not a real person. . . . Evidence for the reality of Paul comes from the dozens of writers who quoted him within a generation of his death. Every single Christian source agrees that he was a real person. . . . To say that they were deceived that Paul was an apostle and that he was a real person is to verge on irrationality. There is not a single example of an opponent of Christianity in the first two or three centuries who doubted his reality. It would have been like doubting that Seneca or Ovid or Cicero lived. Bart Ehrman, one of the biggest critics of the reliability of the Bible, has debated unscholarly atheists who claim that Paul is not real and struggled to not laugh at his atheist friends for making the foolish and unfounded claim that Paul was not a real person.
Granted, Oakes is a Jesus-believer, but he has authored a dozen books on the subject and thus has at least some standing to make such a claim.
But seriously, what are the alternatives? I think there are only two: 1. “Paul” was really a collection of individual Jews, writing under his name. But this only modifies my hoax thesis. Now there are many anonymous Jewish hoaxsters instead of a single one. The basic theory still holds. 2. “Paul” was a mythical figure made up later in time. But Acts is virtually a biography of Paul, and is standardly dated to the mid-80s. The First Epistle of Clement mentions Paul, and was likely written in the 90s AD. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans also mentions Paul, and probably dates to ca. 105 AD. So who made up “Paul,” and when? The only plausible culprit is Marcion (85-160 AD), but he could not have constructed a Paul myth at those early dates. Who did it? And why? Until you can answer these questions, you don’t have a viable counter-view.
And then even if there was no historical Paul, what about the Gospel writers? Were they, too, mythical figures? All of them? Invented when, and by whom? This implies that none of the Gospels can be dated to the 1st century AD — can this be sustained? I don’t think so. If any of the Gospels date to 70-100 AD, and had Jewish authors, then my hoax thesis is still maintained. Only now it is just “the cabal” who fooled the world. When someone can give me proof of the “no Paul” theory, I’ll consider changing my title.
In the end, I’m wondering why O’Meara is hostile to my thesis. Is he sympathetic to the Jews? Maybe. Is he worried about blowback? Perhaps. He clearly doesn’t like my Chapter 4, in which I document the long and critical history of the Jewish people; in fact, it is too long for him. And yet, had it been shorter, I would have been criticized for not supply enough evidence for this key point: that the Jews had a terrible reputation in the ancient world, and that they were known to sink to the lowest measures to achieve their ends. It was well-known that the Jews harbored a “hatred of mankind”; hence the likes of Paul would not hesitate to lie, if they stood to gain from it. I could not make this assertion without providing plenty of evidence — which I did.
O’Meara’s only counter is void of substance. He claims, without evidence, that “The Mediterranean region was chockablock with admirers of Judaism, who either respected its moral teachings . . . or delighted in its stories — as people do to this day.” Including perhaps Mr. O’Meara? Who would make such an assertion, other than a Jewish apologist? In any case, I invite him to provide a list of quotations by prominent intellectuals in history, praising the Jews; I think it will be a long wait.
He furthermore complains about my “scholarship” at various points, implying that my book lacks “academic credibility.” Again, this is a groundless claim. Did he find citation errors? Misquotes? Absence of key sources? No. He simply doesn’t like that I use words like “seems” and “perhaps,” which I do prefer to flat-out assertions of fact. Much about the Jesus story requires interpretation or statements of likelihood; in such cases, “seems” is the right word to use, suitably justified.
In the end, O’Meara appears to hold some unidentified grudge against me or my thesis. Again, this is his right. But any written critique should be fair and objective, and unfortunately, this time at least, our reviewer has fallen short of the mark.
David Skrbina, PhD, is the author or editor of 12 books and over three dozen scholarly academic articles, covering philosophy, religion, history, technology, and the environment. For all his works, see www.davidskrbina.com.
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