The Gullota/Fitzgerald Debate: A Review

Daniel Gullota & David Fitzgerald

Daniel Gullota and David Fitzgerald have some things in common. They are both interested in the historicity of Jesus (or lack thereof). They are both also young and relatively new to public discussion of the topic. Neither of them is a demure wallflower; they are both affable, charismatic individuals who seem to be quite comfortable in public speaking situations. Add some personal ambition to the mix, reflected in their respective ubiquitous online presences and corresponding penchants for self-promotion, and what we get are two “budding”* scholars that are evenly matched (more or less) for a probing discussion on mythicism (I prefer the term "New Testament minimalism"—NTM).

At least one would think this to be the case.
In fact, however, the “debate” that took place between these two gentlemen on August 24th (hosted by the Miami Valley Skeptics) was little more than a hyper-courteous brief casual chat that only peripherally touched on the intended topic. Rather than a focused discussion, it was a desultory non-linear thing.

The Good

David Fitzgerald is the author of a couple of books, the most pertinent of which for this topic is Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All, a useful introductory book on general NTM, which fairly encapsulates the Doherty/Carrier approach to the subject in an accessible, unpretentious—and even humorous—format. In the last couple of years, on the strength of this little volume, he has managed to carve out a place for himself in atheist activist forums and events. This is not an easy thing and for this he deserves credit. As someone who bemoans the high visibility of the Zeitgeist/Acharya S approach to NTM, I appreciate David’s being out there in the trenches proactively bringing what I think is a more sober and tenable mythicist approach to a lay audience. Otherwise, the frantic, sensationalist and conspiratorial Zeitgeist version of the story would probably be the only one to reach them, and so he is to be commended for his activism.

Daniel has a degree in theology and recently began graduate work in New Testament studies at Yale University. I've had interactions with him through social media and in a book discussion club that we both belong to and I find him to be a decent, friendly fellow. 
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The “good” of the discussion between these two is mainly that the topic is being discussed at all by people with more than a cursory familiarity with NTM, since the subject seems to be idea-non-grata to so many whose expertise and scholarship overlaps it in some way. Even in the one work which explicitly purports to do exactly that (to engage NTM in detail and in a meaningful way) the best that Bart Ehrman could muster toward that goal was scorn and bluster, for example. So the fact that Gullota is willing to engage in such a debate is therefore notable, as is his willingness to withstand the slings and arrows of online mythicist indignation. He has the advantage of being a relative neophyte in the field, but it's a window that will soon be closing on him. He realizes (I think) that he must stop engaging mythicists soon if he is himself to be taken seriously in the SBL community which he is entering. He will surely be ostracized if he continues to engage them. Though I think it is unfortunate and lamentable that such a limitation could be imposed on "budding" researchers, Gullota's pre-debate proclamation that he will refrain from discussion of NTM, even if only to refute it, after this debate therefore makes some sense to me as a sideline observer. It's probably just as well, though; if this debate is any indication, he's just not very good at it.

To wit ...

The (not so) Good

The first question asked in this debate was about the burden of proof. Who must bear this burden with respect to the question of historicity? Gullota answered (not incorrectly) that anyone who would make a historical claim bears a burden of proof. This would have been a valid answer were it not for the fact that he then goes on to posit that mythicists don't have good evidence for doubting historicity and then leave it at that, completely ignoring the fact that historicists have no good evidence either, neglecting the burden on their side, as if the contrary position, i.e., an affirmation that Jesus indeed historically existed, were a given. Thus, right from the starting gate, Gullota demonstrates that he is laboring under the idea that historicism is the default position to be held to until toppled by mythicist argumentation. This is really a kind of subcategory of the begging-the-question fallacy, though. It reminds me of when someone like Sye Ten Bruggencate, a presuppositionalist apologist, demands that a debater provide a basis for human morality, yet cannot provide a comparable logical basis for morality under his own theistic paradigm, other than to appeal to the authority of special revelation. But at least Bruggencate can point to a literal reading of Holy Writ to support his special pleading, which doesn't solve the problem, but at least it pretends to. In the case of the debate in question, Gullota simply insists that mythicists have no good evidence and cites ("sheer") "explanatory power" for support, a phrase he used several times throughout the rest of the discussion, but which he never defined or expounded upon, and which therefore rings hollow in context. To be fair, "explanatory power" (parsimony, induction, deduction, et al.) is a concept that needs to be unpacked further than this debate allows for, but simply saying that something has more explanatory power is not an argument.  

Prompted by this appeal to "explanatory power," the host then asked Fitzgerald how a mythical Jesus could have resulted in the early Christian literature and the early Church. Fitzgerald didn't really adequately answer this question, which in all fairness, as in the previous example, is necessarily a pretty complicated one that would require some time to unpack (it took Richard Carrier a good portion of a couple of volumes to tackle it). Fitzgerald offers the discontinuity between an actual familiarity with a known historical person and the multifarious variant recollections of this supposed individual by the scattered communities and house churches that comprised early Christianity. In doing so, he refers to Jesus and "all the great things he supposedly did," which inadvertently opens the way for Gullota to respond by making a distinction between a Jesus of history and a Jesus of faith, thus kinda strawmanning Fitzgerald's point. Gullota states that this is a distinction that many mythicists fail to make, and he implies that mythicists can't tell the difference between these two very different things, but I think he should be called on this. In all of my reading of mythicist literature, I do not see this going on, and I would challenge Gullota to demonstrate exactly where mythicists have committed this error. If it is as common as all that, he can surely point to many examples of this practice. In fact, I find it a bit insulting to imply (else why bring it up at this point?) that Fitzgerald had conflated these two Jesuses. He simply hadn't. Fitzgerald is a smart guy. He knows the difference.

Gullota then cites an analogy involving Michel Foucalt's concept of the archaeology of knowledge. To paraphrase: 'In an archaeological investigation, if we keep digging, we may eventually find dinosaur bones, but we're not going to find any dinosaurs.' The point he is trying to make is that any reconstruction is going to be necessarily interpretive. This is true and fascinating, but ultimately it is irrelevant to the topic of the discontinuity that Fitzgerald was addressing. Gullota obviously likes this analogy a lot, and I like it too, but he should have saved it for a time when it would have actually followed from and/or contributed to the discussion. In context it seems forced ... rehearsed.

In response to the charge that a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is not being recognized, Fitzgerald starts to intimate that only secular approaches to the scholarship are valid before Gullota cuts him off to suggest that a scholar's religious commitments should not matter to the discussion. He says that all he cares about is "good history."  This is belied later in the debate when Gullota bemoans "atheism" as a source of, or cause of, or influence on NTM. If it doesn't matter for scholarship that someone is religious, then it also shouldn't matter that someone is an atheist. You can't have it both ways.

At this point, Fitzgerald admits he was just being provocative by bringing up the primacy of secular scholars and he explains that he did so just to highlight the fact that even within the narrower scope of secular scholarship, there is a lot of variegation in the portraits of Jesus being offered up. They are all respectively plausible in and of themselves, yet they are mutually exclusive, which prompts Fitzgerald's question: "which Jesus is the real Jesus?" Gullota seizes on this phrasing to revisit his Foucalt point, that is, to remind us that there is no "real" Jesus, that every Jesus is necessarily a reconstruction, and to add that scholars have been refraining from talking this way in the last few decades. That's fine, but it is again superfluous, as it's not really what Fitzgerald was getting at.

At this point Gullota call into question Fitzgerald's (and Price's) argument from variegation. He says:
"David comments that [...] 'Every historical Jesus is plausible until you read the next book.' Well, I find that a bit hard to believe because in scholarship, typically, that's not the case because predominantly within America, [the] United Kingdom, France, and Germany, the reconstruction of Jesus that has stood out across the last few decades is Jesus understood as an apocalyptic figure. I know you don't like the word "consensus" [...] I'm not trying to cite it as proof, but I'm citing it that[sic] that is the direction that scholarship overwhelmingly has headed in the last years. These other reconstructions of Jesus-the-magician, Jesus-the-protocommunist, are very popular, very marginal.[sic] You don't see them at SBL. You don't see them being talked about in University published presses. The Jesus that is being discussed these days is Jesus as an apocalyptic figure. The question is: What sort of apocalyptic figure? Every issue with Jesus leads to another, so ... ok, so Jesus was an apocalyptic ... What type of an apocalyptic? And the more we research the milieu, the context that he was in, the more that we can attempt to reconstruct Jesus. And that's not trying to find 'facts' about Jesus; that's trying to reconstruct him to the best of our scholarly ability.

Now this is a problem. It's a bit of a doozy, in fact. It's a double whammy of error. The apocalyptic take on the historical Jesus is well represented in scholarship, it's true, but what Gullota said there is a gross, partisan exaggeration. Far from there being such a unified field, there is in fact plenty of disagreement regarding this (and most other) aspect(s) of historical Jesus studies. Here's what Marcus Borg, in his Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (1994) wrote on the topic of the state of the field:
[...]The question of Jesus and eschatology has risen again in North American scholarship. In the 1980s it became clear that the eschatological consensus that had dominated much of this century's Jesus research, beginning with Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer and continuing through Rudolf Bultmann into the mainstream of scholarship, had seriously eroded. The former consensus saw Jesus as an eschatological prophet and sought to understand his mission and message within the framework of imminent eschatology. Though it affirmed both a present and future dimension to Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom, it typically subordinated the present to the coming kingdom, understood as a dramatic transcendent intervention in the imminent future. Moreover, this expectation was seen as the heart of Jesus' message and the conviction animating his mission.

More than half of the scholars in two North American samples no longer think that Jesus expected the imminent end of the world in his generation. James M. Robinson described this development as :"the fading of apocalyptic" and as a paradigm shift and "Copernican revolution" in the discipline*** Though the old consensus has not yet been replaced by a new one, non-eschatological understandings of Jesus are emerging, as are non-objective and this-worldly understandings of eschatology. (pp 18–19)

First of all, Gullota is engaging in a logical fallacy (he knows it, or he wouldn't bring up the caveat) by basically saying, "I don't wanna argue ad populum, but I'm going to argue ad populum, anyway." That he can so cavalierly do this is disappointing but not really surprising. It's not uncommon in academia to strut and pad one's stuff (guilds are funny that way). Arguing from consensus is, of course, bad in itself, but it's worse than that in this case. What Gullota asserts about a supposed overwhelming scholarly consensus on Jesus as apocalyptic figure with such confidence and poise is simply not true. It is misinformation. No such overwhelming consensus exists. The fact is that if we survey the last 25–30 years of scholarship, we find plenty of folks espousing an apocalyptic Jesus, for sure. But we also find folks like Burton Mack and Elisabeth Shüssler Fiorenza and Richard Horsley and James M. Robinson and Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and many other scholars who have challenged that particular eschatological view of the historical Jesus. Without going into too much detail, the main reasons for doubting the apocalyptic Jesus model is that it is difficult to reconcile it with other material in the Jesus tradition that has as much claim to being "evidence." In other words, the lens of Jesus-as-prophet-of-restoration-eschatology enables us to see too limited a range of data and forces us to set aside too much data (namely, the parables and the "Q" material). In still other words,  its explanatory power is inadequate. Now, I'm not here to argue for a non-eschatological Jesus, but it must be stressed that the eschatological view is not unanimous. Not at all. It leads me to ask: Why would Gullota speak falsely like this (and with such academic pretense and feigned authoritativeness, to boot)?  Could it be analogous to someone attending an Elvis impersonator convention and noticing that everyone there looks like Elvis? It's just selection bias, plain and simple. Now, I've never been to an SBL meeting, so I can't verify that the apocalyptic Jesus is the only one being discussed there these days, but I believe Daniel if he says that he's only seen the apocalyptic Jesus being represented. If that is his experience, then that is his experience. I don't think he's lying. If it's true, though, I would guess that this narrow experience may be Gullota's own limitation, and is probably not the SBL's fault. Nevertheless, Gullota is just plain wrong on his insistence that there is such a decided consensus. We all make mistakes, of course, and I hope Mr. Gullota reconsiders and abandons this line of argumentation the next time the topic comes up in his studies.

At any rate, Fitzgerald doesn't realize that Gullota has just spoken falsely and so he moves on, finally touching on what is essentially the crux of the problem of the historical Jesus, namely, the (un)reliability of the primary sources. They don't get into it (I wish they had), but the fact that none of the gospels are reliable historical sources (as a significant—and growing—number of scholars think is the case, including Gullota himself) plus the fact that (if the Tübingen and Dutch Radical schools are correct—I think they are) neither are the Pauline epistles, then we must soberly consider the prospect that we have no primary sources regarding earliest Christianity. This makes all the certitude and authoritative posturing that is so prevalent in New Testament studies, even on the part of truly brilliant men and women in the field with great insight regarding the texts, seem like silly dog-wagging, like vain pretense.

Next, Gullota is asked if "Jesus was noticed by any of his contemporaries"? His response is an evasive re-phrasing of the question:
It's difficult to explain that, because, technically ... no ... but then nobody in the ancient world was. If you're asking, like, if somebody while Jesus was alive was writing down things as they were happening, then, no.
This, of course, is not what he was asked. Anyway, he continues ...
But then, having said that, if someone like Josephus, for example [...] Josephus was writing about the Jewish War in the year 90, but they took place in the mid 60s and ended in the year 70, so even though Jesus is a contemporary witness to those events [sic— this is another falsehood—or at least a hasty misstatement—if the traditional timeline of Jesus' life, wherein he was killed around the year 30, is remotely accurate], it's not like he was writing it down as they were happened. So I just wanna clarify that (note the irony of calling an ambiguation a "clarification"). But that's not really surprising, that we don't have that many sources for Jesus.

He then goes on a side tangent about how rare literacy was in the ancient world, citing William Harris, which is true, writing was indeed a rare thing, but this rarity didn't preclude the documentation of Simon of Perea, of Athronges, of Apollonius of Tyana, of John the Baptizer, of Judas the Galilean and his family, ... of literally dozens of other charismatic individuals and leaders of popular movements who supposedly had even smaller followings than Jesus had, many of them in rural "backwaters," and so Gullota's argumentation here is pretty impotent on this point. No one "wrote stuff down as it was happening," and yet these people's names and stories survive. Fitzgerald does rightly raise this point. Gullota counters that these other messianic pretenders were revolutionaries and would have been more above radar than Jesus would have been, citing the comparatively more pacifist stance of Jesus and Paul, but I think Gullota is cherry-picking again, considering that Jesus' demise reportedly came about as a result of a similar rebellious, dissident trajectory (the Hosannah entry and the Temple violence). Gullota also tendentiously trivializes the size of the early Christian community. He says that when Paul went to Jerusalem, there were only two Christians, and when he went to Antioch, there was only a handful. I think this is a very facile (if not disingenuous) interpretation of what the texts say. He's twisting the texts to say things they don't actually say. That Paul only saw James and Peter is irrelevant to the size of the community there. He cites the late Jerome Murphy O'Connor's work estimating the size of the house churches that Paul pastored and endorsed at about 30 people each. I have no pressing reason to doubt his estimate, but I do challenge the notion that these house churches that Paul visited were the only Christian communities around at the time. That line of argument only works if we discount the missionary and pastoral work of all the other apostles, including not only "the twelve" but also peripheral activists like Apollos and Thecla and Timothy and John Mark, etc, etc. Fitzgerald rightly challenges him on this point as well. The house churches may have been small(ish), but they were scattered throughout the Mediterranean Basin. So I'm afraid this is just another instance of Gullota's selection bias at work again. As far as the eschatological content in the epistles go, Gullota is happy to accept the "seven authentic" ones as genuine. I've yet to see a good scholarly refutation of Van Manen & co, or even a good defense of this authenticity. (I'd welcome any good recommendations to this end.) Regardless, I don't see why he brings up Pauline eschatology to support his point re: literacy here.

I should add here that during this tangent, Gullota does something that always makes me cringe a little whenever I hear a New Testament scholar do it; he refers to "we as historians." It makes me cringe when I hear Ehrman say it. It makes me cringe when I hear Bob Price say it. New Testament studies does overlap the discipline of history in places, but until a thorough familiarity with the methods of historiography are understood and applied across the board, until this is undertaken and mastered (not just on 1st century Near East, and not just a convenient reliance on the "criteriology" of 20th century religious scholarship), people have no right to refer to themselves as "historians." It's vainglorious. That feather is a lot harder to earn than simply being in a religious studies program. It's a pet peeve of mine and a red flag as far as I'm concerned, though I realize that it is not uncommon.


I've only covered half of the debate, but I won't belabor this any more. The rest of the discussion is just as fumbling and stumbling. Gullota goes on to naïvely defend the possibility that the Testimonium Flavianum might be genuine, for example. I think this is not very tenable. He also goes on to deny that early Christianity had more in common with mystery cults than he's willing (or able) to admit. I think this is also a case of selection bias. The entire debate is dripping with it. If I continue critiquing all he said, this post would be twice as long, so I'll cease now and say that I think I have described the proceedings and the tone of the first half fairly accurately. This was not a good debate. Fitzgerald won hands down, even though he spoke much less than Gullota did. Fitzgerald won simply by giving Gullota enough rope to hang himself, in fact, almost by default. I wonder if Gullota realizes this.

Let me add that I intentionally avoided reading other reviews of the debate so that they would not influence my opinion in any way, but I think I will go read a few of them now that I have posted my own. I'm curious to see what others thought of it.

If you made it this far down in this post ... thank you.

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I'll close by saying that the reason I haven't posted anything in a while is because I have had an unexpected bout with illness this year which has knocked me down pretty hard. I'm feeling somewhat better now and hope to do some catching up. I'll try to be a bit more consistent in my posting in the coming months.



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