David Fitzgerald is an atheist activist and Jesus mythicist who gives public lectures primarily to secularist organizations and conventions. He authored a book on the topic of Jesus mythicism called NAILED: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All (2010). In this entry, we look at several responses to this book provided by atheist writer and critic of Jesus mythicism Tim O’Neill (1). I provide some commentary myself too. O’Neill is an atheist himself who believes the uncontroversial fact that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth and has therefore taken it upon himself to expose the weaknesses of Jesus mythicism. Fitzgerald promotes his book as examining the evidence “gathered from historians across the theological spectrum” to demonstrate how Jesus Christ is “created solely through allegorical alchemy of hope and imagination; a messiah transformed from a purely literary, theological construct into the familiar figure of Jesus – in short, a purely mythic Christ.”
A claim Fitzgerald makes is that it is not ridiculous to promote the Jesus mythicist hypothesis because “most biblical historians have always been Christians, and have ideological reasons not to fairly consider the Christ myth; and there are several lines of historical evidence that can be cited in support of the hypothesis” (2). But herein lies the first issue with Fitzgerald’s book, which is that it sets up a false dichotomy at the get-go. O’Neill remarks that,
“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 we expect them to say?” (3)
But as O’Neill has rightly pointed out, this is far too simplistic. Many scholars working in the relevant fields of biblical studies, New Testament studies, or classical history may be Christian (and a tiny few might even be “preachers”), but many are certainly not. Many leading scholars such as Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Ludemann, Mark Nanos, Alan Segal, Jacob Neusner, Hyam Maccoby, and Geza Vermes, and others are not Christian believers. In fact, these scholars range from Jews to atheists, agnostics, and more. Further, those scholars who do describe themselves as Christian, such as Dale C. Allison, E. P. Sanders, and John Dominic Crossan, are hardly Christian in what most would consider the orthodox, conventional sense. These scholars often hold ideas about Jesus that few church-goers would recognize and they are nothing like the conservative religionists of the Geivett and McDowell type. O’Neill contends that,
“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”.”
Bart Ehrman, a non-Christian scholar, has elsewhere put it this way:
“One should not think these professional academics are all fundamentalist Christians. Some of them are (and there are some very smart ones among that particular demographic as well). Others are moderate to extremely liberal Christians (extremely liberal: to the point of denying that Jesus was born of a virgin or physically raised from the dead, and to the point of acknowledging that the New Testament is chock full of contradictions and legendary materials; but these scholars still consider themselves to be followers of Jesus and call themselves Christian). Others are Jews. Others are agnostic (like me) or atheist or… something else. All of these teacher-scholars – not some of them, but all of them, to my knowledge – think that Jesus existed” (4).
According to scholar of New Testament Language and Literature James McGrath, these various scholars have theorized and conducted their work with little interest in protecting Christian orthodoxy,
“Now, I expect a chuckle at that point from insiders in this field. Among scholars who work on the historical Jesus, we know that, far from protecting Christian dogma, just about every possible interpretation of who Jesus was has been offered, including some quite sensational and downright impious ones” (5).
Underlying Fitzgerald’s false dichotomy is the view that if he can show that something is inconsistent with the type of Jesus held by a fundamentalist Christian (like Josh McDowell) then he has successfully disposed of the historical Jesus altogether. But O’Neill rightly retorts that “This does not follow at all.” Fitzgerald’s book is therefore at an immediate deficit given the lack of acknowledging the large middle ground of scholars who exist, which will strike an informed reader of willful distortion and will, at the very least, encourage a skeptical eye when reading the rest of the book. A more honest and transparent author would have laid out on the table the various views and positions that exist on the subject and then engage them.
Mythicist Irrelevancies: Contradictions, Non-Eyewitnesses, Archaeology, and Other Mentions
A favourite go-to for many mythicists is the contradictions in the gospels which they think proves their worthlessness as sources attesting to the historical Jesus. Here the mythicist leaps from the mere presence of contradictions to the conclusion that Jesus never existed. But this is setting up another false dichotomy. Most historians accept that there are contradictions and factual mistakes in the gospel accounts, but none of them leap to the radical conclusion that the very person to motivate their writing in the first place, Jesus himself, did not exist. Scholars simply accept that there is a mistake and take it into account like a responsible historian. Fitzgerald is forcing us to select between two positions which are not the only ones: either the gospels are entirely accurate in everything they speak about or, else, Jesus did not exist. We are missing another large middle ground here in that scholars acknowledge the gospels have mistakes but still speak about a real Jesus of history.
The same can be said about Fitzgerald’s claim about the gospel authors not being eyewitnesses. Indeed, scholars agree that the gospels were not authored by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, but this does not make the accounts unreliable. Most documents from ancient history of persons and events were written by non-eyewitnesses and this does not mean historians should reject those accounts; O’Neill explains that “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.”
Fitzgerald also charges that there is no physical archaeological evidence for Jesus. But this is unproblematic because we lack any physical archaeological evidence for most people who have existed in human history and who we know to be historical figures. Moreover, this is what we would expect with the historical Jesus who was an itinerant preacher from rural backwater that hardly anyone knew about. This challenge is further diminished in light of the surplus of textual sources we have for the historical Jesus that alone establishes his existence.
A final irrelevancy concerns Fitzgerald’s question as to why more people didn’t notice Jesus given certain details in the gospels. Fitzgerald refers to such events as the taxing of the whole Roman Empire, Herod the Great’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, Jesus’ ministry and miracles, his entry into Jerusalem, his trial, and execution.
Does this argument hold water? We argue not. Regarding the massacre and census in the Infancy narratives, few scholars think that the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem or an Empire-wide census are historical, so pointing out that these should have been noticed by other writers will not prove compelling to scholars. Most scholars do, however, agree that Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker attracted crowds; as Jewish scholar Paula Fredriksen remarked, “An ability to work cures, further, coheres with another datum from Jesus’ mission: He had a popular following, which such an ability helps to account for” (6). This is why Jesus’ popularity with crowds is mentioned in all four gospel sources; scholar Mark Saucy states that “There is little doubt the crowds considered Jesus a prophet because of His miracles (Mark 6:14–16; Luke 7:14–17; John 6:14)” (7).
Regarding Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, most historians regard this as a small event and hardly one that would have been noticed beyond the ordinary, despite the gospel statements that seem to boost its importance. What about Jesus’ death? Jesus’ crucifixion was a run of the mill execution that was given to common criminals and rebels, so it was hardly unique from that perspective. Yet we still find mention of it throughout our New Testament and in Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus. In other words, Jesus’ death did attract considerable attention contrary to what Fitzgerald alleges. Further, for most of the alleged details Fitzgerald suggests should have been more widely noticed, O’Neill reflects,
“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.”
An Argument From Silence
Mythicists are, as we have seen before, guilty of arguing from silence. For instance, Fitzgerald alleges that,
“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” (8).
As we stated in the article linked above, an argument from silence can be compelling to render doubt on something (say X) if we expect there to be a mentioning of that X in sources we expect to find X mentioned in. If this can be shown, then an argument against X can be made. But Fitzgerald’s argument from silence is vastly exaggerated and he does not provide us with any of these so-called “plenty writers”. In fact, to the contrary of such an exaggerated claim, we have only one author to have an interest in Jewish Messianic claimants of the first century, namely the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. The problem for mythicism is that Josephus mentions Jesus twice (with one passage being a Christian interpolation over an original core and a second undisputed passage) and if there was an ancient writer we would expect to mention him, it is Josephus.
Further, historians know of various people from the first century who caused a stir but were not mentioned by many writers at all. O’Neill refers to the,
“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.”
How many writers and historians from history care to mention Athronges, the Samaritan, Theudas, or the Egyptian? Only one: Josephus. It seems quite unjustified then for Fitzgerald to think that Jesus would have attracted more attention than these figures and therefore should have been mentioned in more accounts. Moreover, even if we did have in our possession more writers mentioning such figures of the first century who happened not to mention Jesus, it would still not constitute an argument against the historicity of Jesus. As O’Neill remarks, “it is not enough for the Mythicist to merely note that the writer/s in question don’t mention Jesus, but they have to also show they should have done so. That is slightly more tricky.” Indeed this is a more tricky task and it is where the mythicists have failed to make their case.
O’Neill says that Fitzgerald attempted to skirt this critique of failing to mention the supposed writers who should have mentioned Jesus by claiming that he reduced the size of his final published book; according to Fitzgerald: “Nailed was distilled down from a manuscript that was originally not 250 pages, but nearly a whopping 700 pages. So in fact, there’s a lot of information that I don’t mention, and many hard choices I had to make about what to include and what to leave out in a book that’s intended to be a reader-friendly intro to the subject.”
To which O’Neill remarks, “As excuses go, this is on a par with “the dog ate my homework”.”
The Usual Skepticism Over Paul
There is very little unique in Fitzgerald’s book and we tend to find the same erroneous interpretation of the Apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer to compose letters mentioning the historical Jesus. As we noted before, Paul’s letters present a problem for mythicists generally. How so? First, Paul’s authentic letters are replete with references to the historical Jesus and even go on to reference several historical events associated with him. Second, they are early in proximity to Jesus’ time of death. O’Neill reflects,
“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.”
Indeed Fitzgerald takes this line when he writes that “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 he 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” (9).
But, of course, this is easily shown false. First, we need to acknowledge Paul’s reasons for writing letters in the first place. Paul’s reasons for writing differed from the canonical gospels that were composed to present to readers the ministry of Jesus and the various historical events related to it. Paul’s reasons for writing varied, but it was often to present useful advice to churches, to uplift the Christians in their faith and during times of trial, to solve doctrinal and communal disputes, and so on. For example, Galatians is concerned primarily with gentile Christians and the topic of male circumcision. The letter of Romans is concerned first and foremost with salvation, transformation, and justification. First Thessalonians speaks at length about relationships among Christians in the church and preparing for God’s arrival. We could add to this list, but it is clear that the interest lies not in presenting another biographical gospel account of Jesus’ ministry, but with real issues in the church at Paul’s time.
That said, Paul does make the occasional reference to events that go back to the historical Jesus. For example, Paul notes that Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother, and born a Jew (Gal. 4:4). Jesus had a “human nature” and was a human descendant of King David (Rom. 1:3). Paul refers to teachings Jesus made during his ministry on divorce (1 Cor. 7:10), on preachers (1 Cor. 9:14), and on the coming apocalypse (1 These. 4:15). Paul mentions how Jesus was executed by Earthly rulers (1 Cor. 2:8) and that he died and was buried (1 Cor. 15:4-5). Further, Paul says that Jesus had a brother called James who Paul himself had met (Gal. 1:19). The most natural reading of Paul is that he believed in a real Jesus. And this is where mythicism tends to become particularly speculative and problematic in light of their attempts to explain away these references (for example, James not really being the brother of Jesus but a community brother; Paul believing Jesus was crucified in a heavenly realm rather than on Earth; etc.) that seem desperate and contrived. O’Neill remarks,
“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.”
A Convenient Interpolation
That Jesus had an actual brother has been a thorn in the mythicist side because, as Bart Ehrman has stated, “If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think his brother would know about it” (10).
We learn from Paul in Galatians that Paul met Peter, who was Jesus’ closest disciple, and “James, the brother of the Lord”. In Galatians, Paul is trying to offset the charge that he is subordinate to those who were followers of Jesus before his conversion to becoming a Christ-follower. He assures those in Galatia that he did not get his “gospel” from the community in Jerusalem, but that he actually met with James, the brother of the Lord.
Mythicists have jumped through just about every hoop to explain away this detail. Most commonly they seem to try and argue that “brother of the Lord” is not meant literally, which we have shown is simply false. Fitzgerald takes a different line and argues for an interpolation. Interpolations are another mythicist favourite and they are often used to explain away details that point to a historical Jesus. In this case, Fitzgerald maintains that the detail of James being “the brother of the Lord” was added later,
“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” (11).
What does Fitzgerald use in support of this argument? He says that “just a few verses later (Paul) disdainfully dismiss(es) James as though he was a nobody (Gal. 2:6)”. But this doesn’t correspond with Paul himself who refers to “James, Cephas (Peter) and John” as esteemed pillars of the church (Gal. 2:9), which is an obvious endorsement of their, including James’, authority. Paul even says that these three individuals gave him the mission of preaching to the gentiles. It becomes very difficult to agree with Fitzgerald that Paul dismisses James “as though he was a nobody”. It seems more likely that it is an attempt to get rid of an inconvenient piece of evidence. It is, I suggest, an interpolation of convenience.
The Usual Skepticism Over Josephus Flavius
As noted, the problem for mythicism is that Josephus Flavius, the only writer of the first century who seems to have had any interest in people like Jesus, mentions Jesus. Twice. This is, of course, no problem for those who believe Jesus existed, but it is a problem for mythicism.
The accepted view of Josephus’ mentioning Jesus by historians today is that he mentions Jesus twice in his Antiquities. He refers to Jesus and his brother James in one passage that is wholly authentic and goes back to Josephus himself. Josephus also mentions Jesus in another passage that historians agree was later touched up by a Christian scribe. Important to note is that historians accept that this passage was touched up, not created or fabricated and then applied to Josephus as if he had nothing to do with it. We look in this article at several reconstructions of this passage in which historians have removed words believed to be added to the original paragraph. There are good reasons to believe that beneath the interpolation there is a genuine historical core, hence why scholars haven’t dismissed it as a reference to Jesus. So, how does Fitzgerald attempt to explain this away? O’Neill gives us the answer,
“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.”
But what does Fitzgerald make of the scholarly reconstructions of this reference to Jesus we noted above? He simply attributes those attempts to “wishful apologists”, but as O’Neill has rightly responded, “this is a total distortion of the state of academic play on the question of this passage.” O’Neill goes on:
“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.”
The manuscript that Professor Pines found is important and does not help the mythicist case. It is an Arabic paraphrase of the tenth century historian Agapius which quotes Josephus’ passage, but not in the form we have it today. This version seems to draw on a copy of Josephus’ original, un-interpolated text and states that Jesus was believed by his followers to have been the Messiah and to have risen from the dead. Thus, in the original Josephus was simply reporting early Christian beliefs about Jesus regarding his status and resurrection. This is further supported by a Syriac version cited by Michael the Syrian that also has the passage saying “he was believed to be the Messiah”. According to O’Neill, “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.” It is important to note that Fitzgerald does not deal with the Arabic and Syriac evidence at all, which means he is either ignorant of them or conveniently ignores them.
But Fitzgerald does attempt to dispute the other mention of Jesus by Josephus that is accepted as genuine by historians. The mention of Jesus is made in passing. In the passage, Josephus is referring to an event that he witnessed himself. In 62 CE, Josephus, just 26 years of age, was in Jerusalem after recently returning from an embassy to Rome. He was a young member of the aristocratic priestly elite that 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 at this time the procurator Porcius Festus died while in office and his replacement, Lucceius Albinus, was still on his way to Judea from Rome, which left the High Priest, Ananus, with greater rein and freedom than usual. Ananus executed some Jews without Roman permission and was later deposed when this came to the attention of the Romans. What is important is what Josephus says in passing about the executions that caused 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.” (Antiquities 20.9.1)
Here we have a genuine reference to the historical Jesus and his brother James. It is also a reference that is difficult for mythicists to get around; O’Neill states that,
“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.”
Moreover, we have third-century Christian apologist Origen referring to Josephus and even quoting his exact words from this passage in Contra Celsum I.4. Given that Origen was a third-century writer, he was writing when Christianity was still a small, illegal, and persecuted sect, which means it was too early for any Christian scribes to doctor this text, so we need not worry about that.
Fitzgerald then notes that Josephus says that the successor of the deposed Ananus was one “Jesus, son of Damneus” and then concludes that the “Jesus, who was called Messiah” is not a reference to Jesus of Nazareth, but actually a reference to this “Jesus, son of Damneus” instead.
But this is problematic. Firstly, the name “Jesus” was one of the most common names for Jewish men of the time and Josephus is careful to differentiate between different individuals with the same common first names, especially when he mentions two in the same passage. This is precisely why he refers to one Jesus as the one “who was called Messiah” and the other as the “son of Damneus”. The distinction is clear and there is no reason to think Josephus is referring to just Jesus, son of Damneus.
It is not difficult to see why the case presented by Fitzgerald in NAILED: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All is problematic and easily refuted. As we noted, Fitzgerald has a poor grasp of the general academy and of the scholars who work in the field as suggested by the several false dichotomies he sets up concerning them. Further, Fitzgerald presents the same mythicist irrelevancies that others have presented before him. These are not new and they have been answered before. In addition, we receive a strained reading of Paul and find the false claim that Paul did not refer to a historical Jesus. Fitzgerald then made a few attempts to undermine both references to Jesus in Josephus, but we saw why Josephus will remain an indelible thorn in the side of the mythicists. In sum, we have a weak case for Jesus mythicism that should not cause anyone to doubt that there really existed a historical figure in Jesus of Nazareth.
- O’Neill, Tim. 2011. Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald. Available.
- Fitzgerald, David. 2010. NAILED: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All. Lulu.com. p. 16-17.
- Fitzgerald, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 16
- Ehrman, Bart. 2012. Richard Carrier on The Huffington Post Article (1). Available.
- McGrath, James. 2014. Mythicism and the Mainstream: The Rhetoric and Realities of Academic Freedom. Available.
- Fredriksen, Paula. 2000. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Vintage Books. p. 115
- Saucy, Mark. 1996. “Miracles and Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God.” Bibliotheca Sacra 153:281-307.
- Fitzgerald, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 22.
- Fitzgerald, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 128-129.
- NPR. 2012. ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ A Historian Makes His Case. Available.
- Fitzgerald, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 145