David Fitzgerald, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, (Lulu.com, 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 Lulu.com 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 Amazon.com 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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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"