Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West

Tom Holland, The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West , (Anchor, 2008) 512 pages,
Verdict?: 4/5 An elegant and eloquent overview of a neglected turning point.

When most people think of the Middle Ages they tend to have a Hollywood conception in mind - castles, knights, armour, damsels, monks etc - as well as the usual cliches about it being a "dark age", a time of ignorance and superstition and a period in which the Catholic Church reigned supreme.  That latter cliche can range from a syrupy and pious romanticisation of the period as an "Age of Faith" to the more common conception of the Medieval Church as nothing more than an institution of dark oppression which kept "the people" ignorant and so ruled Europe as a vile theocracy that held everyone in an iron grip until the Reformation made everything okay again.  Or something.  It often comes as a surprise to people when I explain to them that most of the history of the Medieval Church was one of a weak and vulnerable institution struggling for survival and then struggling to free itself from secular domination.  The caricatured Medieval Church of Protestant Sunday school lessons, countless Hollywood movies and the popular imagination (even the popular imagination of many modern Catholics) is based on the Church of the very end of the Middle Ages - a Church that ultimately won most of its battles to free itself from secular domination.  The Church of the earlier centuries of that struggle was nothing like the one most people think they "know".

Tom Holland began his career as a novelist and it shows from the elegant flowing prose in his popularisations of history.  His first non-fiction work was Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003), which took Julius Caesar's crossing the River Rubicon with his army and triggering a war with the Senate as a key turning point in history.  Two years later he released Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the Westwhich dealt with another turning point, the Battle of Thermopylae and the first clash between east and west in Europe. In both cases Holland took two reasonably well-known events and characters and used them to explore their wider contexts and cast some light on their significance for us today.  In The Forge of Christendom he chooses a much more obscure event as his turning point, but still does an admirable job of expanding on its context, even if he may be less successful at convincing of its modern significance.

Henry IV and his Anti-pope Clement III

Henry IV Goes to Canossa

On January 27 1077 AD Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, King of the Romans and the Germans and Caesar of western Christendom, stood barefoot in the snow under the small castle of Canossa, wearing the hairshirt of a penitent.  For three days he had waited outside the gate of the remote fortress, fasting and praying, while inside Pope Gregory VII and his ally Countess Matilda of Tuscany pondered whether to let him in.  This confrontation formed the climax of a two year struggle over what became a key question: who has the right to appoint bishops and abbots and other religious  office holders, the Church itself or secular rulers?  In 1075 Pope Gregory had set down the Dictatus papae, a set of axioms regarding the powers of the Pope and the Church that were the culmination and effective manifesto of the Cluniac reform movement that had been slowing gaining influence for the last five decades or more.  The Dictatus stated the key aims of the reform movement that had begun at the influential French Benedictine monastery of Cluny, but it was the fact that it stated that the Pope alone could appoint or depose churchmen and move or depose bishops that sparked the confrontation with the Holy Roman Emperor.

In a period in which bishoprics came with land and feudal duties and provided kings with political support, revenues and troops, the idea that a bishop could be appointed by a Pope alone was political anathema to a ruler like Henry IV.  He had spent a decade and a half struggling to raise his power from that of a child regent dominated by the great lords of Germany to the supreme ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, more powerful even than his father.  His ability to appoint favoured noblemen to powerful bishoprics and his capacity to sell Church appointments to the highest bidder as a source of revenue were key foundations to that hard-won power.  The Church reformers' ideology was not a threat while it remained theoretical or when it was simply aimed at ensuring priests were reasonably literate and pious.  But when the low-born but highly intelligent son of a village blacksmith, Hildebrand of Sovana, became Pope Gregory VII, the movement had effectively taken control of the Church and Gregory was ready for an ideological showdown.  The Dictatus' condemnations of lay investiture of bishops and "simony" (the selling of benefices) were bad enough, but Gregory also stated "it is permitted for (the Pope) to depose Emperors".  Not surprisingly, Henry struck back.

He sent Gregory an open letter declaring it was the Pope who was to be deposed.  It opened with the  sneering declaration "Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk" and ended by thundering "I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages!"  These were fighting words and a direct counter to Gregory's audacious new claims to authority.  And they were hardly empty words - unlike Gregory, Henry IV had armies at his disposal and all involved knew that if push came to shove he could and would march on Italy and depose the Pope by military force.

The Coronation of Charlemagne, from a later Medieval illumination

The Weakness of the Early Medieval Popes

In past centuries, that would have been the end of the matter.  Any previous Pope arrogant or mad enough to challenge the Holy Roman Emperor in this way would have been forced to quickly back down.  This is because the Popes of the first centuries of Christianity were vulnerable and weak.  While they had always maintained a claim to some form of ecclesiastical supremacy as successors of Saint Peter, in practice the Papa in Rome had become little more than the petty bishop of a shrunken city of relics and ruins with little influence beyond Rome's crumbling walls and often little more within them.

A few early Popes had successfully extended their influence into the rest of western Europe: notably Gregory the Great in the Seventh Century, who commissioned missionaries as far afield as Britain and the Rhineland to win back to the sphere of the Church territories lost to pagan barbarians.  But in the following centuries the Papacy became the plaything of local politics and vulnerable to the ruthless Lombard dukes who came to dominate northern and central Italy and to the squabbling factions in Rome itself.  In 799 AD the hapless Pope Leo III fell foul of the nobles of Rome and narrowly escaped having his eyes gouged out and his tongue removed.  He was forcibly deposed and sent to live in a monastery, but escaped and fled to the Frankish kingdom to the north, where he appealed to the powerful king of the Franks called Charles, later known as Charlemagne.  The Frankish king descended on Italy with an army and the hapless Pope in tow, exiled his opponents and restored Leo to the Papacy.  In return, and apparently to Charlemagne's surprise and chagrin, on Christmas Day 800 AD the Pope crowned the Frankish king as Emperor of a new and restored Roman Empire in the west.

It is generally thought that this move was entirely Leo's idea, though Charlemagne was hardly going to object.  This action established the Holy Roman Empire, with Charlemagne's various descendants taking the Imperial title right down to its final dissolution by Francis II in 1806.  Essentially what Leo wanted was to secure his relationship with the Frankish kings as protectors of a vulnerable and politically weak Papacy.  And the Popes did get the protection of the succession of Emperors, though the relationship entangled the Papacy and the Emperorship in a number of ways that were to have a profound effect on the history of Europe.  There was a long precedent for this kind of Imperial protection/dominance of the Church: ever since the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity back in 312 AD the various Roman emperors had been patrons and protectors of the Church.  And in the Byzantine Empire that tradition continued, with the Emperor often more religiously influential than any bishop or patriarch.  But since 476 AD there had been no Roman Emperor in western Europe and Leo III was not really reviving an old political and religious dynamic but creating a new one.

Initially Charlemagne and his successors tried to make it clear that they were the senior partners in this odd new relationship with the Church and Papacy.  Charlemagne's son Louis succeeded him to the title of Emperor, though Charlemagne pointedly crowned his son as co-Emperor and successor himself and did so in his Frankish Imperial capital without inviting or consulting the Pope.  But Frankish laws of succession tended to divide up territory amongst multiple sons and so Louis' Empire was divided in three among Charlegmagne's grandsons, setting the scene for a series of internecine wars in which rivals to the Imperial title increasingly turned to a coronation by the Pope of the day for added legitimacy.  So just as the Popes came to benefit from the protection and prestige of the new line of Emperors, so the Imperial successors and pretenders benefited from the blessing of the Popes.

A bare half-century on from the momentous Christmas Day of 800, and Leo's shade could have been well pleased.  Only a Pope, it was now accepted, had the power to bestow an imperial crown. (Holland, p. 62)
 But it was an uneasy relationship.

"The Beast and the Serpent" - From Beatus of Liebana's commentary

The Riders of the Apocalypse

Holland goes on to detail the centuries of turmoil and invasion that followed. The divided kingdoms of Charlemagne's descendants fractured and the Imperial title continued, though in diminished status, in the Ninth Century.  But in 936 it passed to the Saxon king Otto I; ironically a descendant of the pagan tribes Charlemagne had converted by the sword in a series of bloody wars over a century earlier.  The Europe of Otto and his dynasty, however, was one under constant attack from almost all sides.  To the east and south Islam was overwhelming Africa, expanding in Spain and conquering the islands of the Mediterranean.  From the east came a renewed threat from nomadic raiders, with the pagan Hungarians pushing into western Europe.  And from the north the Vikings who had raided far up the rivers of Frankia in the previous century returned to devastate the North Sea coasts.  Holland notes that these disasters and threats fed a religious fear of the coming of the End Times and the approach of the final apocalypse which he claims became more pronounced as the millennium - the year 1000 AD - approached.

Anyone who remembers the nonsense that attended the approach of the year 2000 will know some of the irrational fears that round numbered dates seem to hold for a certain type of people.  And there is no doubt that Revelation 20:1-3 has some cryptic things to say about Satan being bound for "one thousand years" and then "set free for a short time" to wreak havoc in the last days before the return of Christ.  But Holland's attempts to link many of the often quite disparate themes in his long book to a widespread fear of the year 1000 AD (or 1033 AD, a millennium after the Crucifixion) are not really very successful.  The real focus in the book is on the pivotal events of 1077 and attempts to link them to millennial fervour feel rather strained.  There is no doubt there were fears of the coming apocalypse in this time, but as Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages details, this was a mainstay of Medieval religious thought long before and long after 1000 AD and hardly unique or even particularly acute in the lead up to the end of the Tenth Century.

The later Tenth Century did turn out to be a turning point in many respects despite this.  In 955 Otto I gained massive prestige by winning an against-all-odds victory against a massive invading Hungarian army at Lechfeld, ending the threat from the east and beginning a long process of the expansion of Christendom eastwards.  In Spain the formerly powerful Caliphate of Córdoba went into a spiral of decline over several decades that would see its final collapse in 1031.  Back in 911 the Viking chieftain Hrólfr ("Rollo" to the Franks) swore allegiance to King Charles III, founding the Duchy of Normandy and bring the Viking depredations of mainland western Europe to an end.  And with all these turning points against western Europe's external threats came an increasing prosperity and an increasing expansion by western Christendom.  Change was beginning to sweep through Europe.

The Consecration of the Abbey of Cluny

The "White Mantle of Churches"

Holland may overstate the significance of the year 1000, but it is clear that even the denizens of the early Eleventh Century could feel something was happening.  Around 1027 the monk and chronicler Rodulfus Glaber wrote of a sense that things were transforming and changing for the better.    "It was as if the whole world were shaking itself free," he wrote, "shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches."  Certainly the new century saw new manifestations of piety among nobles and the common people.  As the nobility took advantage of any periods of lesser central royal power, castle-building and a consolidation of feudal structures increased across Europe.  These stronger fiefdoms also led to increased low-level warfare between the great lords, as they jockeyed for land and supremacy.  But at the same time there was an increase in lay piety as peasants, increasingly stripped of former rights by the new power structures, turned to the Church for help.

One source of Church authority that was particularly revered was the new wave of austere monasticism that emanated from the abbey in which Glaber had been writing - great Benedictine abbey of Cluny.  It had been founded in 910 by William I, Duke of Aquitaine, who granted a valley which had held his favourite hunting lodge as the basis for the new abbey to atone for a murder.  Remarkably, the Duke stated that he did not want to appoint the abbey's abbots and made the institution wholly independent.  Cluny established itself as entirely financially independent of the feudal system as well and went on to establish a network of daughter houses founded on the same principles of self-sufficiency, independence, piety, scholarship and, most of all, reform.

The great reform movement that swept through the Church in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries had Cluny and its network at its heart.  The reformers railed against the idea of a Church subservient to secular power and intertwined with the lay structures of feudal fiefdoms.  They championed the protection of the weak and the support of the poor and upheld the rights of peasants in the face of growing aristocratic power and increased internecine warfare.  And, most of all, they condemned the investiture of abbots and bishops by secular lords and "simony": the sale of Church offices for profit by the nobility and kings up to and including the Holy Roman Emperor.

This was a direct threat to the power of kings, but the reformers had the support of the common people and for the first time in centuries the commoners began to flex their political muscle.  The reformers strove to curtail the petty wars and depredations of robber barons and oppressive castellans, entering war-torn regions and declaring "the Truce of God".  Nobles who attended their prayer rallies with a view to scorning the whole idea found themselves confronted by thousands of pious commoners and were shamed into taking oaths of peace on holy relics - oaths they later found hard to break.

But as the Cluniac reform movement gained influence and its zealots climbed higher in the hierarchy of the Church, it was only a matter of time before there was a ideological showdown.  And that came when  Henry IV tried to depose Gregory VII.

"Not Pope but False Monk"

When Henry IV sought to depose Gregory VII, as the "false monk", in 1076 he expected little real resistance.  For the last several hundred years nobles had been used to appointing and deposing bishops and prelates at will and Emperors had deposed and replaced Popes many times before: Henry's own father had deposed no fewer than three Popes.  But Gregory and his advisers were products of the Cluniac system and fired with the zeal of reform.  The Pope countered Henry's declaration of his deposition by the audacious step of excommunicating the Emperor.  In previous centuries his largely symbolic step may have had little impact, but in the reforming age of the Eleventh Century it swung the mood of the common people against Henry.  Scenting blood, the ever fractious German nobles withdrew their support for the Emperor.  A rebellion rekindled in Saxony and the princes of Germany met to elect a new Emperor and depose Henry (failing only because they could not agree on a successor).

Henry saw the tide was turning against him and he began to march on Italy to see the Pope.  Thinking Henry was coming to depose Gregory by force, Countess Matilda of Tuscany gave him sanctuary in the castle of Canossa, but when the Emperor arrived it was in the hairshirt of a penitent, begging for the Pope to forgive him and lift his excommunication.  This left Gregory with a difficult choice:

The king's manoeuvre had comprehensively outflanked him.  As a result, he found himself confronted by an agonising dilemma.  Absolve Henry, Gregory knew, and all the confidence that the German princes had placed in him would inevitably be betrayed.  Refuse to show the humbled king mercy, however, and he would be betraying the duty that he owed to the Almighty himself. (Holland, p. 432)

In the end the devout religious man won out over the politician in Gregory and he relented, lifting his excommunication.  The short-term political result was a disaster for the Pope.  Henry turned on his rebel lords and defeated and killed the usurping king they had raised, then he returned to Italy in full military force in 1081 with the intention of finally deposing Gregory and installing his own Anti-pope.  Ironically, Gregory was forced to turn to another secular power, the militant Norman lords of southern Italy, to help him.  They rode north and rescued him, sacking and burning Rome itself in the process.  The people turned against Gregory as a result of the Norman depredations and he was finally deposed and taken south by the booty-laden Normans, where he died in despair in Salerno in 1084.  His bitter last words were said to have been "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile."

The First European Revolution

This complex tale of the intrigues of, to most, long-forgotten Popes and Emperors in the "dark ages" may seem utterly irrelevant to many.  But Holland does a good job of pointing to its significance and explaining why Gregory's struggle with Henry reshaped Europe and actually made it exceptional, laying the foundations for some aspects of later European dominance.  Because while Gregory died thinking he had failed, his reforms were ultimately triumphant.  The total dominance of secular powers over the Church was broken and never re-established.  Later Popes waged ever more assertive battles for independence from secular politics and reached a pinnacle of influence in the Thirteenth Century under Innocent III before suffering a collapse of prestige in the Reformation.  But never again was the Church and religion fully under the domination of any state:

Gregory himself did not live to witness his ultimate victory - the cause for which he fought was destined to establish itself as perhaps the defining characteristic of western civilisation.  That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should be distinct from each other: here are the presumptions that the eleventh century made 'fundamental to European society and culture, for the first time and permanently.' (Holland, p. 13)  

He quotes R.I. Moore, whose book The First European Revolution: c. 970-1215 traces this remarkable development and who observes "it is not easy for Europe's children to remember that it might have been otherwise" (Moore, p. 12) and notes one of the reasons for some disquiet in the west at any influx of Muslim immigrants, however small or peaceful, is that "to a pious Muslim the notion that the political and religious spheres can be separated is a shocking one - as it was to many of Gregory's opponents." (p. 14)

Holland's book is a sprawling epic and could be one that the non-Medievalist would find hard to keep straight in their head.  He begins with Henry and Gregory at Canossa but then takes a long sweep through several centuries of background and context before coming back to that climactic confrontation and its implications about 400 dense pages later.  Those who can see what he is doing should be able to follow along, but more casual readers may find themselves wondering about the relevance of lengthy digressions into the trading networks of the Rus Vikings on the Volga or the intricate diplomacy of the Byzantine court. As noted above, the attempt to use the idea of the coming apocalypse as a unifying theme is under-baked in places, though on the whole he does manage to hold the whole thing together.  What makes this book a joy to read is not simply the breadth of scholarship he manages to digest and lay out for the lay reader, but the fact that this novelist does it with a fiction-writer's elegance of phrase.  Otto II does not simply ride south to Italy, his "great force of iron-sheathed loricati ... clattered southwards".  And they do not simply find a land devastated by Saracen sea-raiders but rather "there, as the Saxons watered their horses, they found no vineyards, or villages, or fields, but only desolation - and over it all a stillness like that of a rifled grave.  Terror, in southern Italy, came surest by the sea." (p. 103)

The best popular histories do not simply digest scholarship about the past for the general reader, they make it come vividly to life.  Through the eloquence and elegance of his prose, Holland does that superbly.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald

David Fitzgerald, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, (, 2010) 246 pages,
Verdict?: 0/5 A tragic waste of probably rather nice trees.

Barely a day goes by without being reminded that the internet is revolutionising publishing.  Record companies are struggling to compete with artists who can release music direct to the public, e-publishing teens are making millions selling young adult novels via Kindle and we keep hearing predictions of the death of print newspapers.  Part of this revolution is the fact that e-publishing and online "print-on-demand" self-publishing services like and Blurb mean that anyone can be a published author.  The upside of this is that worthy writers of novels, short stories or poetry that have a market but are unlikely to get a traditional publisher can find their audience.  Or someone writing a technical book on an obscure subject, such as how to dress and cook a swan or construct a Tudor ruffed collar, can do the same.  The downside is that now all the cranks, lunatics, crackpot theorists or ranting loons who used to clutter the net with websites preaching their fringe theses have self-published books all over as well.  I suppose you take the good with the bad.

One fringe idea that  has helped keep the print-on-demand publishers ticking along is the Jesus Myth hypothesis - the idea that not only was Jesus not what Christianity claims, but that there was no historical Jesus at all and that the stories about him are purely mythical in origin.  This is a thesis that has been hovering off on the fringe of New Testament scholarship for quite some time - Charles François Dupuis and Constantin-François Chassebœuf both proposed that Jesus never existed back in the Eighteenth Century, though it was first presented in any detail by the German historian Bruno Bauer in 1841.

Later Nineteenth Century ideas about the origin and development of religion, inspired and typified by Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, tried to find a single, overarching framework or template for all religions and the vogue for this idea lent itself to the theory that Christianity arose purely out of earlier religious traditions, with Jesus as a mythic "dying and rising god" figure representing rebirth, fertility and the cycle of the seasons.  This formed the basis of some Jesus myth theories by several early Twentieth Century Jesus Mythers; most of whom were enthusiastic amateurs like American mathematician William Benjamin Smith (Ecce Deus: The Pre-Christian Jesus, 1894), Scottish MP J.M. Robertson ( A Short History of Christianity, 1902) and philosopher Arthur Drewes (The Christ Myth, 1909), along with a variety of Theosophists, esotericists and proto-New Age writers.  However mainstream scholarship moved away from the assumptions and methodology of Frazer's anthropology of religion and the idea of Jesus as purely mythical never gained substantial traction.  With the exception of John Allegro's eccentric hippy version of the thesis (The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, 1968), the idea reached an low ebb even amongst amateur theorists by the 1970s.

More recently, however, it has experienced something of a revival, partly on the back of the internet and cheaper and easier small publishing and online distribution.  The new Jesus Mythers tend to fall into three broad categories.  The first consists of theorists who do not quite claim there was no historical Jesus, but rather that he was not who most scholars believe he was - an early First Century preacher prophet.  These are classic pseudo historical conspiracy theories that claim Jesus was "really" some other historical figure, such as Julius Caesar (Francesco Carrota, Was Jesus Caesar?, 2005) or the Emperor Titus (Joseph Atwill, Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus, 2005).

The second and far more popular category consists of New Age works reviving (and largely recycling) early Twentieth Century esoteric and Theosophist versions of the thesis, with heavy emphasis on pagan parallels with Christianity as "proof" Jesus simply evolved out of earlier pagan gods.  British mystical writers Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy brought out a version of this thesis in 1999 with the publication of The Jesus Mysteries: Was the 'Original Jesus' a Pagan God?  It was marketed squarely at the kind of reader who devoured Holy Blood Holy Grail and, not surprisingly, its sequel is mentioned in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.  A more convoluted version of the same ideas has been presented in several books by a New Age writer who calls herself "Acharya S", but whose real name is Dorothy Murdock.  Beginning with The Christ Conspiracy in 1999, Murdock has proven adept at harnessing the internet to propagate her ideas.  She uses YouTube videos and an extensive website to sell her self-published books and has developed a cult-like following of almost fanatical disciples.  Her "archaeoastronomical" thesis of Jesus as a solar deity got a boost from the notorious underground conspiracy "documentary" Zeitgeist, which somehow managed to link her thesis to conspiracies about 9/11, international banking and the media.

The final category of Myther theories are ones that tend to have been propagated by anti-theistic atheists or seized on by them as a way to attack traditional Christianity.  Most popular amongst them is that of Canadian writer Earl Doherty, whose self-published book The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? (1999) developed out of his website of the same name.  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.  Doherty does not place the same emphasis on pagan parallels as the New Age proponents of the thesis, but argues for an Jewish proto-Christianity (several of them, in fact) that considered Jesus to be a purely mythic being who was born, lived and died in the sub-lunar circle of the heavens, not on earth.  Several other amateurs and hobbyists, like Richard Carrier and R.G. Price, propose or support similar ideas, with several of them pushing this thesis at secptics' conventions, in atheist gatherings and on atheistic and humanist online fora.

Fitzgerald's False Dichotomy

Which brings us to David Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald is an atheist activist who is on the board of the San Francisco Atheists and the founder of an atheist film festival.  He has spent some time giving public lectures that are essentially summaries of his book, mainly to secularist organisations and conventions.  His book has certainly received high praise from prominent atheists and Mythers.  Robert M. Price, who is one of the two or three actual professional scholars who give the Myther thesis any credence, wrote a blurb which says it "summarizes a great number of key arguments with new power and original spin".  American Atheist Press editor and biologist Frank Zindler says Fitzgerald "reveals himself to be the brightest new star in the firmament of scholars who deny historical reality to 'Jesus of Nazareth'".  Atheist activist Richard Carrier gives a kind of imprimatur, declaring solemnly and authoritatively "All ten points (in the book) are succinct and correct".  And fellow self-published author and Myther guru Earl Doherty goes so far as to say it is "possibly the best 'capsule summary' of the mythicist case I've ever encountered."  But it seems such high praise from Myther luminaries does not count for much with publishers - like most Myther books, Nailed is self-published.

So is it as powerful as its blurbs declare?  Well, actually, no.  On the whole it is confused, lopsided and, in places, laughably amateurish.  If this is the best "mythicism" can produce then it's small wonder the academy remains singularly unimpressed.

As its title suggests, the book is divided into ten "myths" about Jesus, which the author then proceeds to attempt to debunk and show that a historical Jesus never existed. The first - "The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous" - is not really controversial.  After all, no-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence.  This, of course, merely means the idea he did not exist is simply valid, not that it's true. But from the start the attentive reader begins to notice something very odd about the way Fitzgerald frames the debate.  He consistently depicts the topic as some kind of starkly Manichaean conflict between Christian apologists on one hand and "critics who have disputed Christian claims" on the other and in his first pages he mentions evangelicals, conservative Christians and populist apologists like F.F. Bruce, R. Douglas Geivett and Josh McDowell in rapid succession.  He notes that the vast majority of Biblical historians reject the idea that Jesus never existed, but counters that "the majority of Biblical historians have always been Christian preachers, so what else could be expect them to say?" (p. 16)

This is glib, but it is also too simplistic.  Many scholars working in relevant fields may well be Christians (and a tiny few may even be "preachers" as he claims, though not many), but a great many are definitely not.  Leading scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen and Gerd Ludemann are all non-Christians.  Then there are the Jewish scholars like Mark Nanos, Alan Segal, Jacob Neusner, Hyam Maccoby and Geza Vermes.  Even those scholars who describe themselves as Christians often hold ideas about Jesus that few church-goers would recognise, let alone be comfortable with and which are nothing like the positions of people like Geivett and McDowell.  Dale C. Allison, E P Sanders and John Dominic Crossan may all regard themselves as Christians, but I doubt Josh McDowell would agree, given their highly non-orthodox ideas about the historical Jesus.

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".

A Failed Argument from Silence

The false dichotomy established in the first chapter is continued in the second, entitled "Myth No. 2: Jesus was wildly famous - but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him ... "   Fitzgerald insists that there are elements in the story of Jesus which should have been noticed by historians of the time and insists that there is no shortage of writers then who should have recorded some mention of them:

There were plenty 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)

Now, potentially, that is a pretty solid argument.  If we did indeed have "scores of writers" from Jesus' time with such an interest in Jesus' region and who wrote about "failed Messiahs" then it would certainly be very strange that we have no contemporary mentions of Jesus.  Unfortunately, as we will see, this is one of several places where Fitzgerald lets his overblown rhetoric run well ahead of what he can then actually substantiate.

But first, his opening words in the very next sentence are worth noting.  It begins "If the Gospels were true ..."  Here and throughout the book Fitzgerald gets himself into a constant confused tangle over which Jesus he is arguing against.  He keeps saying he is arguing against the idea of any historical Jesus at all, yet at every turn it is the Jesus of a very conservative reading of the gospels that he talks about.  He repeatedly thinks that if he can show that something is not consistent with the kind of Jesus argued for by an fundamentalist apologist preacher like Josh McDowell, he has disposed of the historical Jesus altogether.  This does not follow at all.  Most critical scholars have no time for the McDowell-style Jesus either, so the Jewish preacher they present  as the historical Jesus behind the later gospel figure is left totally unscathed by Fitzgerald's naive arguments.

Thus Fitzgerald goes on to detail things in the gospels which he argues should have been noticed by writers of the time: the taxing of the whole Roman Empire, the massacre in Bethlehem by Herod the Great, Jesus' ministry generally, his miracles, his entry into Jerusalem, his trial and his execution. For anyone other than a fundamentalist, this argument has zero force.  Critical scholars, including many Christian ones, would simply chuckle at the idea that things like the story of an Empire-wide census or the Massacre of the Innocents are historical, so arguing they did not happen counts for nothing much when it comes to arguing against the existence of a historical Jesus.  Fitzgerald even seems to think that the fact the "Star of Bethlehem" and the darkness on Jesus' death are unattested and therefore most likely did not happen (which is true) is somehow a blow against the existence of a historical Jesus (which is not).

And it is hard to see why the other items on his list would be noted, noticed or even known to any far off Roman or Greek historians at all.  Given that these historians make no mention of any other Jewish peasant preachers or miracle workers, it is hard to see why Fitzgerald thinks they should have done so with this one.  As for things like his entry into Jerusalem, his trial and his crucifixion, it is equally difficult to see why they would be more than a one day wonder even locally.  Why Fitzgerald thinks such minor events would be the talk of the whole Empire is a mystery.

But in the quote above he claimed there were "scores of writers" with a burning interest in this region and, apparently, in the doings of Jewish Messianic claimants.  He even claims these writers detail the "lesser exploits" of these Messiahs, but make no mention of Jesus.  Strangely, he never tells us who these "scores of writers" with this interest in Jewish Messiahs are, which is very odd.  As it happens, we have precisely one writer who mentions any figures who might be seen as "failed Messiahs", and that is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.  But far from talking about "lesser exploits" of these figures, what this single writer says about Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants in this period makes it quite clear that Jesus was actually pretty small fry as such figures go.

For example, a bandit-rebel who declared himself a Jewish king called Athronges not only gathered enough armed followers to tackle Roman troops but for a while he was able to inflict military defeats on them, until he was defeated circa 4 BC.  An unnamed Samaritan prophet led a "great multitude"to the holy mountain of Gerizim, promising them a mystical revelation, around 36 AD.  He and his followers were so numerous they had to be attacked by the Romans and dispersed using units of both infantry and cavalry.  About ten years later a prophet called Theudas led "a great part of the people" into the desert, promising to miraculously part the River Jordan and had to be dealt with by Roman cavalry in the same way.  And another unnamed Jewish prophet, this one from Egypt, led an estimated (though unlikely) "30,000 men" to Jerusalem, telling them its walls would miraculously fall so he could lead them into the city.  Again, Roman troops had to be called out to deal with them, leaving hundreds dead and causing the prophet to run away.

It is very hard to see any of these fairly momentous events as "lesser exploits" compared to what even the gospels claim about Jesus.  Even if we take their accounts at face value, a chanting crowd greeting his entrance to Jerusalem, a trial that no-one witnessed and a run-of-the-mill execution are hardly big news compared to mass movements that required the mobilisation of troops and pitched battles.  Yet how many other historians so much as mention Athronges, the Samaritan, Theudas or the Egyptian?  None.  Apart from Josephus, no writer so much as gives them a sentence's worth of attention.  So somehow Fitzgerald thinks these minor events in the Jesus story should be mentioned when far bigger, more significant events are not.  He wildly misrepresents the evidence ("scores of writers") and his attempted argument from silence clearly fails dismally.

Next Fitzgerald goes into some detail about the writers and historians of the First Century who he claims "should" have mentioned a historical Jesus but did not.  He lists eleven who are contemporaries of Jesus.  Like many Mythers, he seems to think that the lack of any contemporary reference to Jesus is somehow a particularly telling point, since the few extra-Biblical references to Jesus are in writings dating almost a century after his time.  This would come as no surprise to anyone actually familiar with the nature of ancient source material, however.  There are few more famous ancient figures than the Carthaginian general Hannibal; even today most people at least know his name.  He was one of the greatest and justifiably famous generals of ancient times.  Yet, despite his fame then and now, we have precisely zero contemporary references to Hannibal. If we have no contemporary mentions of the man who almost destroyed the Roman Republic at the height of its power, the idea that we should expect any for an obscure peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee is patently absurd.

(Edit:  In the discussion in the comments on this review here and elsewhere it was brought to my attention that we do have a tiny fragment of one contemporary account of 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 not aware of this when I wrote the paragraph above, so thanks to the commenter Evan for bringing it to my attention.

The point still stands however - if we have nothing more than a few lines from any contemporary work about Hannibal to expect to have surviving contemporary mentions of someone as unimportant and obscure as Jesus is still absurd.  And there are many other very prominent people for whom we have no contemporary mentions: we have nothing of the sort for the Icenian warrior queen Boudicca or the Germanic warlord Arminius, for example.  Arminius destroyed one tenth of the whole Roman army in one battle and led the only successful rebellion against the Empire in its history, yet we have nothing about him from the time or even from his lifetime.  Fitzgerald's emphasis on the lack of contemporary references to a peasant who did not much is plainly ridiculous.  Of course, it should also be noted that my point is still correct - the text of P.Würzb.Inv. 1  makes no mention of any "Hannibal". ) 

Fitzgerald labours mightily to detail all the writers who he claims "should" have mentioned Jesus.  But in every case his argument suffers from the same fatal flaw: given that none of these writers mention any other Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants, there is absolutely no reason to think they "should" have mentioned Jesus.  As noted above, Athronges, the Sarmatian, Theudas and the Egyptian prophet were actually far more prominent and significant locally than Jesus was even according to the most naive, face value fundamentalist's reading of the gospels.  Yet not one of them is mentioned by any of Fitzgerald's list of "should" writers either.  Nor are any other comparable Jewish figures of the time, such as Hillel, Shammai, Choni HaMa'agel, John the Baptist or Gamaliel.

Yet Fitzgerald again claims that these writers do mention other figures similar to Jesus.  "In many cases", he claims,  "these same writers have much to say about other much less interesting messiahs - but not Jesus" (p.42)  In "many cases"?  In which cases?  Fitzgerald simply does not say.  And other messiahs are mentioned?  Which ones, where and by who?  Again, despite this being a key point that should potentially back up and substantiate his creaking argument, he never bothers to tell the reader.  The reason is simple - what Fitzgerald is saying here is absolute nonsense.  None of his writers mention any such figures for the same reason they do not mention Jesus: because these writers had no interest in any such Jewish preachers and prophets.  As a result, despite all his bold claims and loud rhetoric, Fitzgerald's argument collapses in a heap.

Josephus and his Amazing Technicolour Interpolations

Despite Fitzgerald's unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, the only writer of the period who seems to have had any interest at all in people like Jesus was Yosef ben Matityahu or Flavius Josephus.  This means that if Josephus did not mention Jesus while mentioning other such figures like Theudas and John the Baptist, people like Fitzgerald would actually be able to make a real argument from silence.   The problem is that Josephus does mention Jesus - twice.  So any Myther book or article has to spill a lot of ink trying to explain these highly inconvenient  mentions away.

Getting rid of the first reference to Jesus, the one in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII.3.4  is made a little easier by the fact that at least some of it is not original to Josephus and was added by Christian scribes later.  The textus receptus of the passage has Josephus saying things about Jesus that no Jewish non-Christian would say, such as "He was the Messiah" and "he appeared to them alive on the third day".  So, not surprisingly, Fitzgerald takes the usual Myther tack and rejects the whole passage as a later addition and rejects the idea that Josephus mentioned Jesus here at all.

He does acknowledge the alternative idea, that Josephus' mention of Jesus was simply added to, but yet again he attributes this to "wishful apologists".  This is a total distortion of the state of academic play on the question of this passage.  As several surveys of the academic literature have shown, the majority of scholars now accept that there was an original mention of Jesus in  Antiquities XVIII.3.4 and this includes the majority of Jewish and non-Christian scholars, not merely "wishful apologists".  This is partly because once the more obvious interpolated phrases are removed, the passage reads precisely like what Josephus would be expected to write and also uses characteristic language found elsewhere in his works.  But it is also because of the 1970 discovery of what seems to be a pre-interpolation version of Josephus' passage, uncovered by Jewish scholar Schlomo Pines of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Professor Pines found an Arabic paraphrase of the Tenth Century historian Agapius which quotes Josephus' passage, but not in the form we have it today.  This version, which seems to draw on a copy of Josephus' original, uninterpolated text, says that Jesus was believed by his followers to have been the Messiah and to have risen from the dead, which means in the original Josephus was simply reporting early Christian beliefs about Jesus regarding his supposed status and resurrection.  This is backed further by a Syriac version cited by Michael the Syrian which also has the passage saying "he was believed to be the Messiah".  The evidence now stacks up heavily on the side of the partial authenticity of the passage, meaning there is a reference to Jesus as a historical person in precisely the writer we would expect to mention him.  So how does Fitzgerald deal with the Arabic and Syriac evidence?  Well, he doesn't.  He is either ignorant of it or he conveniently ignores it.

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

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

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

 Jesus, James and History

So Fitzgerald then turns to this second mention of Jesus by Josephus, the one that is actually mentioned and quoted by Origen as noted above, and attempts to make it disappear as well.  Except the mention in Antiquities XX.9.1 is much trickier prospect for Myther theorists than the clearly edited mention in Antiquities XVII.3.4.  The second mention is made in passing in a passage where Josephus is detailing an event of some significance and one which he, as a young man, would have witnessed himself.

In 62 AD, the 26 year old Josephus was in Jerusalem, having recently returned from an embassy to Rome.  He was a young member of the aristocratic priestly elite which ruled Jerusalem and were effectively rulers of Judea, though with close Roman oversight and only with the backing of the Roman procurator in Caesarea.  But in this year the procurator Porcius Festus died while in office and his replacement, Lucceius Albinus, was still on his way to Judea from Rome.  This left the High Priest, Hanan ben Hanan (usually called Ananus), with a freer rein that usual.  Ananus executed some Jews without Roman permission and, when this was brought to the attention of the Romans, Ananus was deposed.

This was a momentous event and one that the young Josephus, as a member of the same elite as the High Priest, would have remembered well.  But what is significant is what he says in passing about the executions that that triggered the deposition of the High Priest:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so (the High Priest) assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
 This second reference to Jesus is difficult for Mythers to deal with.  Dismissing it as another interpolation does not work, since a Christian interpolator in a later century is hardly going to invent something as significant as the deposition of the High Priest just to slip in this passing reference to Jesus which, unlike the interpolated elements in the Antiquities XVII.3.4 passage, makes no Christian claims about Jesus.  Then there are the three citations and quotations of this passage by Origen mentioned above.  Fitzgerald seems totally oblivious to these, but Origen was writing in the mid-Third Century AD, which shows this mention existed in Josephus then - ie while Christianity was still a small, illegal and persecuted sect and so much too early for any Christian doctoring of this text.

But Fitzgerald falls back on one of the several gambits Mythers use to get their argument off this awkward and pointy hook.  He notes that Josephus tells us the successor of the deposed High Priest was one "Jesus, son of Damneus" and then triumphantly concludes that the "Jesus, who was called Messiah" is not a reference to Jesus of Nazareth at all, but actually a reference to this "Jesus, son of Damneus" instead.

While he declares this ingenious solution to his problem to be "the only (explanation) that makes sense" (p. 61), it is actually highly flawed.  He claims, following fellow Myther Richard Carrier, that the words "who was called Messiah" were "tacked on" and that the Jesus mentioned as the brother of the executed James was this "Jesus, son of Damneus".  But this does not explain why Josephus would identify one son (James) by reference to his brother and the other (Jesus) by reference to their father.  Josephus does this nowhere else in his works.  It also does not explain why when he does say "Jesus, son of Damneus" was made High Priest, he does not mention that this was the unidentified "Jesus" mentioned earlier and that the executed James was his brother, since that relevant detail would be worth noting.

More importantly, neither Carrier nor Fitzgerald explain why an interpolator would "tack on" this reference to their Jesus. The motive behind the clumsy interpolations in Antiquities XVII.3.4 is clear: the idea that Jesus was the Messiah and that he rose from the dead was disputed by non-Christians, especially by Jews, so to have the Jewish historian Josephus apparently attest to these Christian claims turned this passage that simply mentions Jesus into a powerful rhetorical tool in defence of these Christian claims.  But simply adding "who was called Messiah" to this other text supports no Christian claim at all.  If anyone prior to the Nineteenth Century was arguing Jesus did not exist, then it would make sense that such an interpolation might be needed, but that is a purely modern phenomenon.  So Fitzgerald's contrived argument is not only clumsy, it is also supposing something for which there was no motive at all.  Then, yet again, there is the fact that Origen quotes this passage three separate times with the "who was called Messiah" element in it.  This was in the mid-Third Century and long before Christians were in any position to be "tacking on" anything to copies of Josephus.

"Jesus" or Yeshua was one of the most common names for Jewish men of the time.  Josephus was very careful to differentiate between different individuals with the same common first names, especially where he mentions two in the same passage.  So it is far more likely that he calls one Jesus "who was called Messiah" and the other "son of Damneus" for precisely this reason.  The clumsy idea that Fitzgerald proposes is highly awkward in all respects; except, of course, as an ad hoc way of making a clear reference to Jesus go away and leave his thesis intact.

Irrelevance (with howlers)

The next four chapters in Fitzgerald's book are more examples of the author arguing against a fundamentalist version of Jesus rather than the historical Jewish preacher of critical non-Christian and liberal scholars.  In them he marshals some fairly standard arguments that would be news to absolutely no-one except the most clueless of Biblical literalists or naive traditional Christians.  He presents evidence that the gospels were not written by eye-witnesses, that they differ in their depictions of Jesus and that there are some historical and archaeological problems with taking them at face value.  Yet again, Fitzgerald cannot seem to make up his mind if he is arguing against any historical Jesus at all or merely a traditionalist/fundamentalist version of him based on a face value reading of the Bible.  These chapters are run of the mill stuff arguing against things that even many Christians do not believe and they do little or nothing to advance his argument about the existence of a historical Jesus.  The gospels can indeed have been written by non-eye witnesses, can present wildly varying pictures of Jesus and can be riddled with historical and archaeological errors and a historical Jewish preacher could still have been the origin of the later stories.  Much of this part of the book feels like mere padding.

Though there are some howlers in it that, yet again, shows that Fitzgerald is an amateur who really needed an informed editor.  At one point he writes:

Matthew has Jesus making a pun where he tells Peter  "upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18).  Though if this had happened in reality, Peter would have scratched his head and asked,  "Say Jesus - what's a church?" since churches hadn't been invented yet, and wouldn't be developed until many decades later. (p. 70)

The word translated as "church" in most English editions is ἐκκλησίαν and it simply means "assembly, gathering, all of a given group", so it would be very odd for Peter to have "scratched his head" at what would have been a perfectly sensible and clear statement.  Personally, I do not happen to believe Jesus said this at all and it seems this was something put in his mouth later by the writer of Matthew.  But the naivete of Fitzgerald's English-based argument is indicative of his weak grasp of the material.

His comments elsewhere in these largely irrelevant chapters are similarly naive.  He pauses in his brief chapter on archaeology and, in a weak attempt to make this chapter vaguely relevant to his main argument, writes:

At the risk of being redundant, we should remember that there has never been a trace of physical archaeological evidence for Jesus, despite centuries of infamous hoaxes such as the Shroud of Turin (p. 108)

Again, that the faithful have clung to pious hoaxes and that the gullible still fall for fake artefacts is not remotely relevant to Fitzgerald's thesis.  And "there has never been a trace of physical archaeological evidence" for most people who have existed in human history, particularly if they were poor and lived in a backwater.  For Fitzgerald to think that the lack of any such evidence for Jesus tells us something about whether he existed or not makes him about as clueless as the Shroud believers.

The Jesus of Paul

The epistles of Paul pose another problem for Mythers like Fitzgerald.  Given that they are the earliest Christian documents we have, generally thought to have been written in the 50s AD, they are uncomfortably close to Jesus' lifetime for the Mythers and remarkably close as ancient source material goes.  So the Mythers take solace in the fact that Paul does not actually say much about Jesus' life and preaching.  They exaggerate this completely, claiming that Paul has nothing to say about any earthly Jesus:

Paul never talks about Jesus' death as though it actually happened to a real man from Galilee who lived on earth a few years before.  Nor does hie give any details about the events of Jesus' life: not the places he travelled, not the miracles he performed, not the parables he told, not even the teachings or instructions he gave .... Paul never says anything about Jesus being an earthly teacher at all. (pp. 128-29)

This is, in fact, substantially nonsense.  While Paul's main focus in his letters is answering questions on issues about his preaching of Jesus as a risen Messiah, he actually does talk about Jesus' earthly life and career at many points.  He says he was born as a human, of a human mother and born a Jew (Galatians4:4).  He repeats that he had a "human nature" and that he was a human descendant of King David (Romans1:3).  Contrary to Fitzgerald's claim, he refers to teachings Jesus made during his earthly ministry on divorce (1Cor. 7:10), on preachers (1Cor. 9:14) and on the coming apocalypse (1Thess. 4:15).  He mentions how he was executed by earthly rulers (1Cor. 2:8) and that he died and was buried (1Cor 15:3-4).  And he says he had a earthly, physical brother called James who Paul himself had met (Galatians1:19).  

Naturally, the Myther theorists that Fitzgerald is following with this idea that Paul believed in a purely heavenly, mystical Jesus have contrived ways to argue away these clear references to an earthly Jesus, but they require contortions, strained readings of the texts, suppositions and, inevitably, assumed interpolations for them to work.  Fitzgerald makes a great deal out of the fact that a lot of the gospels' details are not found in Paul.  This is partly because of Paul's theological focus on the risen Jesus, partly because of the incidental nature of the letters he was writing and the concerns they were addressing and partly because some of those gospel elements  (eg the infancy narratives) are almost certainly are not historical and probably had yet to develop.  But to pretend that Paul did not believe in an earthly Jesus at all requires some contorted hoop jumping of a most dubious and unconvincing nature.

The reference to Paul's meeting with "James, the brother of the Lord" is one that gives the proponents of this idea that Paul only believed in a heavenly, mystical Jesus the most grief.  In Galatians 1, Paul is clearly trying to fend off the charge that he is somehow subordinate to those who were followers of Jesus before Paul's conversion.  In his attempt to counter claims to this effect, he assures the assembly in Galatia that he did not get his "gospel" from the community in Jerusalem.  Though he cannot deny that he did go to Jerusalem after his conversion and did meet Peter, so he quickly adds "I saw none of the other apostles - only James, the brother of the Lord."

There is a consistent tradition that Jesus had a brother called James and that this James became a leader in the Jesus Sect community in Jerusalem.  As we have seen, Josephus mentions the execution of this same James, "brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah".  So we have a confluence of evidence, both Christian and non-Christian, that Jesus had a brother called James who was a leader in Jerusalem and here we have Paul mentioning, in passing, meeting this very same James.  This poses a thorny problem for the Mythers.
There are a variety of ingenious ways used by them to extract themselves from this awkward pickle, usually by claiming that "brother of the Lord" was not meant literally and that there was an (otherwise totally unattested) sub-group of Christian believers who were called "the brothers of the Lord".  Fitzgerald does not resort to this hopelessly ad hoc piece of supposition, but instead falls back on the old Myther standby: supposing a textual interpolation:

Though Christians seize on the one and only verse (Gal. 1:19) that has Paul refer to James in passing as "the Brother of the Lord" it seems more likely that this was a marginal note inserted by a later scribe, whether by accident or deliberately. (p. 145)

He supports this bold claim by noting that "just a few verses later (Paul) disdainfully dismiss(es) James as though he was a nobody (Gal. 2:6)".  What Paul does in Galatians 2:6 is talk about some people who he describes as "those who were held in high esteem" (ie the Jerusalem assembly generally) and says "they added nothing to my message".  But he goes on to note "On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised."  He then talks about how this mission to the gentiles was given to him by "James, Cephas (Peter) and John, those esteemed as pillars" and holds this up as a ringing endorsement of his authority. How Fitzgerald reads that as disdainfully dismissing James "as though he was a nobody" is a mystery.  And how he could use this to posit an interpolation simply as a way of getting rid of an inconvenient piece of evidence and prop up his thesis even more so.   

It is this kind of weak, supposition-laden argument, made up of ad hoc contrivances based on little more than wishful thinking that leaves the Myther position wide open to a savage application of Occam's Razor.  An academic editor would simply laugh at any manuscript that contained an argument this weak on such a key point.  But one of the joys of self-publishing is that you don't have to convince or impress anyone but yourself.  Fitzgerald, it seems, is very impressed with Fitzgerald's arguments.  Not surprisingly.

In Conclusion

I have gone to the effort to write a long review of this book not because it is a worthy work - it most certainly is not.  It is not even the best that the Mythers can do: there are other books which may be flawed but are nowhere near as weak, clumsy, confused or amateurish as this one (as much as I disagree with him, at least Earl Doherty's thesis is coherent and well-researched).  I have chosen to go into some detail with this one because it strikes me as encapsulating most of what is hopelessly wrong about the Myther thesis and its manifestations online and in self-published books like this one.  Like most pseudo history, these arguments for the non-existence of Jesus are flawed by the fact their writers begin with their conclusion.  That is bad enough to start with, and there is no shortage of amateur hobbyist theorists who are too enamoured of their "amazing idea" to subject it to sufficient comprehensive self-criticism.  But this is exacerbated in the Mythers' case by an ideologically-driven bias.

A major part of the problem with most manifestations of the Myther thesis is that its proponents desperately want it to be true because they want to undermine Christianity.  And any historical analysis done with one eye on an emotionally-charged ideological agenda is usually heading for trouble from the start.  Over and over again, Fitzgerald does what most of these Mythers do - plumps for an interpretation, explanation or excuse about the evidence simply because it preserves his thesis.  Their biases against Christianity blind Mythers to the fact that they are not arriving at conclusions because they are the best or most parsimonious explanation of the evidence, but merely because they fit their agenda.

The overwhelming majority of scholars, Christian, non-Christian, atheist, agnostic or Jewish, accept there was a Jewish preacher as the point of origin for the Jesus story simply because that makes the most sense of all the evidence.  The contorted and contrived lengths that Fitzgerald and his ilk have to resort to shows exactly how hard it is to sustain the idea that no such historical preacher existed.  Personally, as an atheist amateur historian myself, I would have no problem at all embracing the idea that no historical Jesus existed if someone could come up with an argument for this that did not depend at every turn on strained readings, ad hoc explanations, imagined textual interpolations and fanciful suppositions.  While the Myther thesis is being sustained by junk pulp pseudo scholarship like Fitzgerald's worthless little book, it will remain a curiosity on the fringes of scholarship good for little more than amusement.  This book is crap.

(Note: Any Mythers who think I need to be educated on their thesis in the comments section, don't bother.  I've been debating you guys online for nearly ten years now and I'm more than familiar with all the counter arguments and alternative readings and other contrivances you people use and so don't need the comments below to be cluttered up by them.  Likewise, sneering comments or commentary by Mythers who I've bugged in online debates over the years will also be deleted.  If you don't like that, then go whine on your own blogs.  Have a lovely day.)

Edit (01.12.13):  In January last year David Fitzgerald posted a lengthy response to my review.  Since then some have asked me if I was going to reply to him.  My reply has taken some time, since it is over 12,000 words long, but it has now been posted on Armarium Magnum:

"The Jesus Myth Theory: A Response to David Fitzgerald"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes, Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, (Pen and Sword, 2010) 282 pages, Verdict?: 4/5 A detailed analysis of a neglected figure in a pivotal moment in history.

As a university student who undertook the rather odd enterprise of teaching himself extinct ancient Germanic languages, I was always on the lookout in second hand bookshops for books on Old English or, even better, Old Norse or Gothic.  Most of the ones I found had been superannuated to gather dust in these shops by the widows of Classics scholars of the earlier decades of the Twentieth Century, which was the last time my alma mater had bothered teaching something as non-vocational as philology.  On November 30 1992, in the period between handing in my Master's thesis and working out what the hell to do next, I found a musty copy of Rev. Joseph Bosworth's A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary, published by Gibbings and Company of 18 Bury Street, London, in 1901. Written back in 1838, it's worth keeping just for the Preface, in which the good reverend got rather excited:

Instead of continuing to associate with the Gothic tribes nothing but ignorance cruelty and barbarity, let us remember forever, - that we are indebted to them for our strong physical powers, our nervous language and our unrivalled freedom under our glorious constitution .... Disgusted by the effeminacy and vices of the Romans, they subdued the Empire and became its moral reformers.  .... Jordanes the Goth calls the north of Europe "the Forge of Mankind" - I should rather call it the forge of those instruments that broke the fetters manufactured in the south.  It was there those valiant nations were bred who left their native climes to destroy tyrants and liberate slaves and to teach men that, nature having made them equal, no reason could be assigned for their becoming dependent, but their mutal happiness. (Bosworth, p. iii)
The certainly don't write prefaces to dictionaries like that any more.  By the time Rev. Joseph had gone on for another couple of pages about the swelling breast of the proud Englishman as he contemplates his good old Germanic "freedom" and how superior this was to the tame and mincing "Romanised" word "liberty" he was probably ready for Mrs. Bosworth to serve him a nice cup of tea and suggest a quiet lie down.

But Dr Bosworth was writing in a period where quite a few descendants of those "Gothic tribes" were shaking off centuries of idolisation of all things Roman and starting to romanticise the Germanic tribes much as the scholars of the Enlightenment idealised the Romans.  Not long afterwards banker and amateur historian Thomas Hodgkin decided to write a history of the Germanic invaders of Rome.  Antiquarian hobbyists didn't do things by halves in those days and between 1880 and 1899 eight whopping volumes of his magisterial  Italy and her Invaders appeared, representing decades of detailed research and translation of source material and still worth reading despite some quaint asides a little like Rev. Bosworth's one above.  In this and other works of the time Stilicho's part in the defence of the Empire is given as much detail as most other prominent generals of the later Empire but they all tend to agree on one thing: he was from one of those "Gothic tribes" himself, because he was a Vandal.  Much was often made of his "martial skill" and his "determined vigour", all of which was thought to be due to his "northern blood" unsullied by the "effeminacy and vices of the Romans".  Thankfully, once the Nazis took this kind of thing to its most vile extreme, no-one writes like that any more.

Ian Hughes certainly doesn't in his book on Flavius Stilicho, which is, as far as I can tell, the first book-length study of the man's life.  He notes that we know very little of Stilicho's background and family other than that his father was a Vandal who had entered Roman military service and his mother was Roman.  Hughes notes that it's his Vandalic father who has got the most attention from historians, with speculation about what having a Germanic "barbarian" for a father might tell us about his later character and actions.  But he argues that it's Stilicho's mother who was probably more significant for how his career at least began:

Many nobles of barbarian origin were given high rank in the Roman army.  However, there is no evidence either they or their descendants were appointed to powerful posts at a young age.  This suggests that Stilicho's mother was of a sufficient status to help promote his career. (Hughes, p. 14)
Our first mention of the young Stilicho has him, in his early twenties, being dispatched on an embassy to the Persian Empire, which would certainly suggest he had family connections that made him already high up in the Imperial court.  So as romantic as the image of him as a shaggy-haired son of a wolfskin-wearing Wodan worshipper might have been for people like Bosworth and Hodgkin, his father was almost certainly a Vandalic noble who had risen to high rank in the army and married well into an aristocratic family.  Which means the young Stilicho would have been a Latin-speaking nobleman of the court with little in common with the tribesmen north of the Danube and west of the Rhine.

Stilicho, with his wife Serena and son Eucharius
Arms and Armour in the Later Roman Army

Hughes has already written a recent biography of another later Roman general, Belisarius, which came out in 2009 around the same time as a very similar book called The Gothic War by Torsten Cumberland Jacobson.  Hughes' book, titled Belisarius: The Last Roman General, is by far the superior of the two.  Most of what we know about Belisarius' Sixth Century campaigns in Justinian's wars against the kingdoms of the Vandals and the Ostrogoths in north Africa and Italy comes from the fawning hagiography of Procopius, who wildly exaggerates the odds against which Belisarius fought, presents his every victory (however minor) as the result of his personal genius and downplays his every setback and defeat as the result of treachery by jealous rivals and subordinates.  Cumberland Jacobson's dull, plodding book simply takes all this at face value and is effectively a lumbering paraphrase of Procopius with a few (bad) maps and background comments.  Hughes, to his credit, is much more sceptical of his sources and notes the many points where Procopius seems to be covering up his hero's mistakes and papering over severe divisions and flaws in the Eastern Roman military establishment.

It was not surprising to learn that Hughes is also an avid war-gamer, as he is one of the few historians of this period who demonstrates a genuine understanding of the tactics and strategy of the time and an appreciation of what a skilled, effective and well-equipped fighting force the later Roman Army was.  He pauses in his analysis of Stilicho's career to devote two detailed chapters to the Roman and barbarian forces respectively, trashing most of the myths about the late Army in the process.  Enthusiasts of the earlier Empire tend to have a misty-eyed devotion to the equipment of the "classic" Roman legionary of the later First Century AD, and regard the later army as a kind of degenerate, "barbarised" shadow of the older Army, with inferior equipment and training.  Recent research has demonstrated, however, that the equipment of the later Army was highly effective and that the "classic" legionary gear so beloved by Classicists, Hollywood and fanboys was abandoned simply because it was no longer up to the job.  When discussing the abandonment of the classic one-piece, spun bowl Roman helmet of earlier centuries for two-piece "ridge helms" and multi-piece "spangenhelms" Hughes notes that it is often claimed these later designs were inferior and were only adopted because they were cheaper and easier to manufacture:

These claims do not take into account the fact that the process of spinning iron can weaken it and lead to irregularities in the bowl.  This may account for the need to reinforce earlier, one-piece bowls across the brow. .... The new methods produced bowls that did not need brow reinforcement and were of a more uniform thickness and quality, since they were easier to work and toughen than the one-piece skull.  Although looking to modern eyes, with computer-driven accuracy, as if they are a step back, in production and quality they may actually have been an improvement on earlier helmets. (Hughes, p. 62)

Hughes also discusses the abandonment of the classic gladius short sword of the earlier legionary for the longer spatha.  He attributes this to Germanic influence on the later army, claiming the spatha was a Germanic design.  Personally, I think this is wrong - spathae had been used by cavalry units in the Roman army, well before there was any serious Germanic influence.  They had been adapted originally from Gallic cavalry sword designs had been been used because a cavalryman needs a longer, slashing weapon.  The short, stabbing gladius was abandoned by the infantry around the same time as they adopted the spear-like lancea rather than the classic two pilae javelins and dropped the rectangular, curved scutum shield in favour of round or oval shields.  All these changes happened in the Third Century and seem to reflect a radical change in infantry tactics, probably as a result of having to face a newly aggressive Sassanian Persian Empire with its strong cavalry forces.  The old equipment simply was not up to the task and so was rejected.

So rather than being a Germanic influence, the originally Gallic spatha was simply adopted by infantry from the cavalry as a weapon that gave them more reach in the looser and more flexible unit formations required by the new tactics.  In fact, the influence seems to have gone the other way.  When the gladius predominated in the Roman Army, we find it predominating the Germanic archaeological record as well.  Once the spatha was adopted by the Romans, we find it being adopted by the Germanics also.  It seems the Romans influenced the barbarians, not the other way around.

The Germanic barbarians, similarly, were very different to the small, weaker, fairly primitive tribes the Romans had fought and not quite managed to conquer in the First Century.  Four hundred years of cross-border warfare with Rome, service in the Roman Army by many of their young men and a militarisation of their society generally had forged them into far larger tribal confederations and newer, bigger, more powerful tribes generally.  While still less well-equipped and trained than the Romans, these tribes were able to field sizable forces.  Their other attraction for an increasingly cash-strapped Western Empire was that, as warrior societies, the men of these tribes were pre-trained, ready to fight and happy to do so for a price.  Paying them to fight for Rome as foederati was usually cheaper and far quicker than raising armies of reluctant civilian conscripts and then trying to whip them into a battle-ready force.  Though, as Stilicho was to find, this often came with a variety of political consequences.  The result of all these changes meant that the armies that Stilicho came to command looked far different to the Roman soldiers of four centuries earlier.  And they faced a far tougher job.

Soldiers of the Late Roman Army - Early Fifth Century

The Turning Point

Choosing Stilicho's career as a his focus gives Hughes the opportunity to throw some light on what turned out to be a pivotal few decades in the history of the Roman Empire.  When Stilicho was selected to be comes et magister utruisque militiae praesentalis, or supreme commander of the Western Empire's armed forces, in October 394 AD the Empire was relatively stable.  The Eastern Emperor Theodosius had just defeated the rebel Western general Arbogast and ended the bid by the usurper Eugenius to the Western imperial throne.  He installed his young son Honorius, then nine years old, as emperor of the West and needed a strong but trustworthy military commander to stabilise things during his son's minority.  Stilicho was apparently the perfect choice given his loyalty, presumably some proven military ability in the recent campaign and - most importantly - his marriage to Serena, who was the niece and adopted daughter of Theodosius.  This marriage made Stilicho part of the Imperial family, though not in the line of succession.  Theodosius judged, correctly as it turned out, that this association would be close enough make Stilicho loyal to the young Honorius, but not to tempt him to seize power for himself.

Stilicho did not really need to.  Theodosius died just months later, succeeded in the East by his seventeen year old son Arcadius.  With both halves of the Empire under the rule of Emperors who were still minors, Stilicho declared that the dying Theodosius had asked him to be parens - effectively guardian of both boys and essentially ruler of both Empires.  As Hughes notes, this appointment was only ever claimed by Stilcho and his propagandists, like the poet Claudian, and was never confirmed by anyone else.  Not surprisingly, it was disputed in the East, particularly by the eastern preafectus praetorio Orientis Rufinus, under whose care Theodosius had placed the young Arcadius when he left to campaign in the west. This was the beginning of a political rivalry between Stilicho and Rufinus, who were the real powers behind the throne in the West and East respectively.

Hughes' analysis of Stilicho's career highlights exactly how bitter this rivalry between the Western and Eastern Empires was and how easily it could and did flare into full scale war.  This is one element in this turning point that is often overlooked - not only did the Western Empire face barbarian incursions and rebel generals as well as Imperial usurpers in this period, but it did so alongside an Eastern partner that was often hostile if not actually at war with its Western equivalent.  The two halves of the Empire ruled by brothers were supposed to work together, as Theodosius had envisaged.  In effect, the rivalry between Stilicho and his eastern equivalents meant the two Empires increasingly drifted apart, with terrible consequences in the long run for the weaker Western half.

The other aspect of this turning point period that Hughes details very well is the role of Alaric.  Once again, the romanticised Nineteenth Century image of Alaric makes him into a Germanic folk hero - the brave young warrior king of the Visigoths leading his wild, nomadic tribe across the Empire, bringing it to heel with his prowess in battle and finally sacking the Eternal City itself before prematurely dying.  Thankfully Hughes cuts through the misty idealisation and depicts Alaric as what he actually was - another Roman general of Germanic descent whose main aim was higher rank in the Army for himself and money and land for his (mostly Gothic) troops and who was prepared to mutiny to achieve this.  Stilicho consistently outmanoeuvred Alaric when he needed to, used him and his troops for his own ends when it was useful to do so and defeated him in battle on a succession of occasions.

Alaric's sack of Rome in 410 AD has tended to cast Stilicho in a bad light and a great deal of ink has been spilled over whether this would have happened if Stilicho had followed up his earlier defeats of Alaric back in 402 AD by destroying his army the way he later destroyed the invading army of another Gothic leader, Radagaisus.  Hughes analyses the possible reasons Stilicho did not wipe out Alaric's defeated troops, which are mainly political, such as the idea he wanted to preserve Alaric's army now it had been cowed to use it against other, more serious threats.  But Hughes pushes a more military explanation, arguing that the later Roman Army used more cautious tactics than its early Imperial equivalent, since it could not sustain huge casualties and replace them as easily as the earlier Army.  Once Alaric had been brought to heel, Stilicho considered the job done and to attack him again would be to risk major losses to his already depleted military resources or, even worse, a wholesale defeat.

The boy emperor Honorius, by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1880
The Slide Towards Collapse

It has been traditional for historians to make a great deal of Alaric's sack of Rome as the key turning point and the marker of the final rush towards the collapse of the Western Empire.  But if there was a real pivotal moment in the fall of Rome it was one that came four years earlier, with the double blow of the rebellion of the Roman troops in Britain and the crossing of the lower Rhine by a motley collection of barbarians: Asding Vandals, Siling Vandals, Alans and a grab-bag of Marcomanni, Quadi and Allemani who are generally referred to simply as "the Sueves".  These events in mid to late 406 AD seemed reasonably minor in the scheme of things, but were to prove the real catalyst of the fall of Stilicho and the beginnings of the fall of the Empire.

In most treatments of this period the 406 invasion usually gets little more than a few lines and the consequences of the British rebellion often get ignored completely.  Hughes' two chapters on these events are the most detailed and careful I have seen and he does an excellent job of teasing the sequence of what happened from the often scanty and confusing sources (as he notes, one source does not even agree with the others on what year the invasion occurred).  Hughes' reconstruction of the nature of the invasion is interesting, particularly since he makes it clear that (i) the forces involved were initially fairly small, (ii) they were by no means united or even clear about their aims and (iii) the invasion was possibly not even reported to Stilicho until after the Frankish foederati on the frontier had been narrowly defeated by the invading barbarians.  The idea that this was some vast horde that poured over the border, sweeping aside the corrupt late Roman army is one of several myths associated with this invasion:

Confusion over the course of events is equally prevalent.  The renowned report that the Rhine was frozen is not upheld by any of our ancient sources.  It would appear to be a theory proposed by Gibbon, possibly to account for the lack of a Roman defence at any bridges that should have been defended .... This has been repeated so often that it is now accepted as fact, rather than as theory.
(Hughes, p. 180)
Gibbon strikes again, it seems.  What actually made this incursion significant was not its size or nature, but what happened next.  The rebel troops in Britain had selected a certain Gratian as their leader, but he was soon deposed and replaced by the propitiously-named Flavius Claudius Constantius, or Constantine III.  The new commander promptly declared himself Emperor and invaded Gaul.  There he won the support of the local troops by inflicting crushing victories on the Saxons, who had taken advantage of the Vandal/Alan/Suevic invasion by doing some invading of their own.  Bolstered by these new troops, Constantine advanced as far south as Lyon, where he set up his capital and began minting coins, while his commanders secured the roads to the passes over the Alps.

This new threat to the young Emperor Honorius made the barbarians, who had retreated back towards the Rhine in the face of Constantine's advance south, a secondary consideration for Stilicho.  But the general's grip on power was weakening.  His powerful political ally in the Senate, Symmachus, has died in 402 AD and new courtiers were beginning to get the ear of Honorius, who was now in his early twenties.  Unable to risk leading armies against Constantine himself, Stilicho dispatched and expeditionary force over the Alps under Sarus, who fought an indecisive campaign.  Constantine continued to consolidate his power in Gaul and into Spain and now Alaric began putting pressure on Stilicho and the Imperial government to grant him a huge amount in gold to pay for the up-keep of his army - the one Stilicho had failed to destroy in 402 AD.  Opposition to Stilicho in the Senate and at court hardened, led by a powerful courtier and administrator Olympius. With the news of the death of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius, the new powers behind the throne made their move.  Incited by Olympius, the army at Pavia mutinied, Stilicho's resented bucellarii - a personal bodyguard of Hunnic warriors - was ambushed while sleeping and destroyed and Stilicho was arrested and executed on Honorius' command.

The Vandal Who Saved Rome?

There is a trend in history books these days that says they have to have a catchy sub-title that will grab readers attention.  "The Vandal Who Saved Rome" might well catch the eye of a casual browser in a bookshop, but it certainly is not very accurate.  As noted above, it is very hard to accurately describe Stilicho as a "Vandal" in anything but the loosest sense.  But "Who Saved Rome" is an even bigger stretch.  Perhaps a generalissimo who was less loyal to the young emperor who eventually betrayed and killed him may have accelerated the end of the Empire, but Stilicho did not really "save Rome" at all.  Personally, I would argue this was because Rome was already beyond saving.  The inter-Imperial conflicts, usurpations, rebellions, mutinies and occasional invasions that punctuated Stilicho's career had been going on for a while and were accelerating.  And the cash-strapped Western Empire became increasingly incapable of stemming their ill-effects.

After Stilicho's execution, the usurper Constantine was defeated, but the Western Empire never fully regained control in Gaul and Britain which slowly slipped from its grasp.  The barbarians who crossed the Rhine in 406 AD had escaped undefeated thanks to the Romans' civil war and settled in Sapin, eventually crossing to Africa in 429 AD to take advantage of yet another inter-Roman conflict.  And that sealed the fate of the Western Empire.  With its richest province and the wheat supply of Italy in enemy hands, the end was by this stage inevitable.

The Western Empire did manage to stage one last hurrah, under another great magister militum, Flavious Aetius who managed to scrape a victory against Attila's Huns before the final collapse came.  Apparently the life and career of Aetius is Hughes' next book, and if this one is any indication it will be a welcome addition to the analysis of this turbulent period.