More On Mythicism

I don’t normally link to the blog Metacrock, since the number of typos even in the title of a post is usually enough to put me off. But as there’s a recent post on mythicism, interacting with Earl Doherty and bringing Helmut Koester into the picture, it seemed worth linking to.

Meanwhile, Vridar is continuing to post, and I honestly can’t figure out whether there is a point to these posts and if so what it is. There’s a post on E. P. Sanders and the criterion of double dissimilarity, but it is unclear what problem, if any, Neil Godfrey has with this particular tool of historical-critical inquiry, and what if anything he would recommend historians use in its place. And I found it particularly ironic that, after describing a tool Sanders uses to assess authenticity – admittedly an imperfect tool, but a tool nonetheless – Godfrey then states that Sanders has no method for assessing historicity!

There’s also a post on John the Baptist, in which Godfrey claims that “The Gospel portrayal of John the Baptist is drawn entirely from passages in the Jewish scriptures, as shown above. It does not come from oral tradition or any kind of historical memory.” It is impressive, if he’s right, that the Gospel authors managed to invent a figure with the same name and same practice as a figure mentioned by Josephus! If this were actual historical research, some explanation would be offered not only of the differences between Josephus and the Gospels, but also of the points of intersection, however minimal. That the Gospel authors present John, Jesus, and others using details and typologies from the Jewish Scriptures is not news to anyone who has kept abreast of the field. And it doesn’t seem to have any obvious bearing on whether the figures depicted in this way, through a Scriptural lens, actually existed.

I said I was going to stop posting about mythicism until I have time to interact with representatives like Thompson and Doherty in more detail. But I figure it can’t hurt to link to posts by the defenders and/or proponents of mythicism, when they illustrate so nicely why that enterprise is problematic.

And before you ask, no, the title of this post isn’t a pun. No, really it isn’t.

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    And what about Philo?

  • BSM

    Metacrock! There's a name I've forgotten. I remember him from my Internet Infidels days – maybe 2001 or so? Some things never change. :-)

  • Rick Sumner

    I'm not sure that we can count dissimilarity as Sanders' "method" for doing history. He generally shuns it, and generally shuns any approach to ascertaining authentic sayings.I wouldn't say Sanders has no methodology, but I would say that it would be extremely difficult to describe it in terms of a historiography. He was, from your end, a bad example, because I doubt he would stand up to any serious scrutiny by even the most amateur philosopher of history.The same, unfortunately, can be said of most reconstructions of Jesus, save Schweitzter, who ultimately says that if we accept Jesus was real, we have to accept that he was, in broad terms, who our sources say he was (though even Schweitzer wasn't content to leave it at that, and had to overstate his evidence). That's ultimately Sanders' conclusion too, but he doesn't get there because of a well-developed historiography.

  • James F. McGrath

    I don't know – I asked a colleague in the history department about methods and the "criteria" used in historical Jesus research, and he basically said that history, once you get beyond the groundwork of trying to date sources, is "an art."Any recommendations on reading about the philosophy and methods of historical research, written by someone with no connection to Biblical studies?

  • Nehemias

    Dr. McGrath,>Any recommendations on reading >about the philosophy and >methods >of historical research, >written >by someone with no >connection to >Biblical studies?Jona Lendering is a Dutch historian, who taught theory of history and ancient history at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was a founder of the school history Livius Onderwijs. Lendering maintains a large website devoted to ancient history, called livius. He makes a historical analysis of Jesus as a messianic claimant, and writes: "Scholars usually solve the second question by invoking 'criteria of authenticity', such as embarrassment (some things are too embarrassing for Christians to be invented) and multiple attestation (when independent sources tell the same, it is likely to be authentic). ( …)" The following stories from the gospels, however, can stand the test of literary criticism, and prove that Jesus was seen as the Messiah. (…) "Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross the king of the Jews (multiple attestation; embarrassment). (…)" (….) (….) "Jesus wanted to purify the Temple (multiple attestation; embarrassment), which the Messiah was expected to do. The two most important stories are Jesus' triumphal entry in Jerusalem (Mark 11.4-11; John 12.12-16) and his attempt to cleanse the sanctuary (Mark 11.15-18 and John 2.13-22)"In another article, Lendering evaluates historical sources to Apollonius of Tyana, and uses a methodology very similar to that of New Testament scholars # Evaluation"Having discussed what little we know about the pre-Philostratean traditions, we can try to add things up, using four criteria of authenticity.Independent confirmation: when an author who is not primarily interested in Apollonius confirms something in the source on Apollonius, we may assume that we are approaching the historical truth.Multiple attestation: when independent, pre-Philostratean traditions about Apollonius are in agreement, we may be reasonably certain that they contain some historical truth. The problem with this method is, of course, that it is not always easy to establish independence.Embarrassment: embarrassing information about the man from Tyana also has a claim to historical reliability.Consistency: sometimes the truth of statement can be confirmed after other facts have been established.Using these criteria, we can say that the following elements are almost certain "(…)Nehemias

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks! That's helpful!

  • Rick Sumner

    Biblical historical-crit is fundamentally no different than any other historical crit, so far as criteria go, anyway. I recently cited an example elsewhere of the problem of paucity and unreliability of sources for the early Roman empire. The first two papers in The Blackwell Companion to the Roman Army employ a loose analogue to every major criteria for authenticity in the NT. Thought the Roman historian appears to be more willing to recognize the limits of conjecture, while here in Biblical studies land we stack interpretation on top of interpretation until we have a ten thousand word piece on one verse.Sanders is just a bad example of historical-crit in action, even if I'm inclined to think he gets the right answers (for the most part). I just think he gets them for the wrong reasons, or at least the reasons he gives are wrong.Ultimately all Sanders does is come up with a context and put a narrative together to make sense of it. There's no real criteria or methodology beyond what sounds plausible to him and what doesn't.I think that's ultimately all history can come down to, once we attempt to reconstruct things. What sounds the most plausible to me personally. But once we acknowledge that, (and once we see that that's all Sanders is doing–Allison is an even better example of that in action, and Vermes probably best of all), once we acknowledge that their is no objective limit to our interpretations, we have no grounds to dismiss the mythicist. It doesn't sound more plausible to me, but there is nothing fundamentally untenable about Earl Doherty's position.I think, on that point, it's important to distinguish between the crusading secular, "I-read-Kersey-Graves-so-now-I'm-an-expert" crap mythicist positions and the far more critical positions of a Robert Price or an Earl Doherty. The former are absolute nonsense. The latter have a case, even if I reject it.As to history being an "art," that probably (more than any other point) epitomizes the post-modern criticism of history we find, for example, in Hayden White's work. History claims to be an art, until it is subjected to artistic criticisms. Then it's a science. Until it gets criticized from that end. Then it's an art again. The license of both and accountability of neither. There's more than a little truth to that criticism.Hayden White's Metahistory is an excellent start on historiography, at least criticisms of its usual application. The journal History and Theory has myriad excellent papers as well, many directly germane to Biblical studies, and is available on JSTOR, though it's difficult to understand the dense style, particularly if you're not familiar with a lot of philosophy of history (which I am not, though I'm doing my level best to improve that) Routledge's 50 Key Thinkers on History gives a nice, albeit very brief, background to various positions, and also germane here is their 50 Key Thinkers on Literary Criticism, since as much as we might tell ourselves otherwise, ultimately all we have on this end are texts, so what we're doing is a variation of literary criticism.Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Third Edition by Ernst Breisach has, in particular, a very nice discussion of deconstructionism and the post-modern assault.The problem at present, as I see it (and with the NT firmly in my crosshairs simply out of being the target of my greatest familiarity) is that the ideas we find, for example, in History and Theory are correct, but not really practical, so they get largely ignored in the actual practice of history. We need a method that's right and tenable, though I'm afraid it's going to take a better philosophical mind than mine to come up with it.

  • Rick Sumner

    Hi NM,My problem with embarassment generally, whether it's applied to Jesus or Romulus, is that it's too much of a value judgment. If we went instead with "movement against the redactive trend," or something else less subjective, we'd probably be in better shape all around. We'd lose some things due to inapplicability of the argument without the value judgment, but we'd also be less reversible.

  • Mike K

    What I found a bit frustrating in this debate is some of the rhetoric (but I guess it is the internet :) ), especially the demonstratably false claim that the criteria used by biblical scholars is allegedly not that used by regular historians (notwithstanding the debate over methodologies that takes place in history departments and the humanities in general). So it is nice to hear voices both in and outside the guild weigh in on the historicity of Jesus question. I clicked on NM's link and read two in-depth posts on this debate and esp. the reference to James in Josephus that should be included in your collection of links:

  • Rick Sumner

    Sorry for resurrecting the comments on such a dated post, but I just finished another useful discussion on historiography in Cicero as Evidence: A Historian's Companion. Since Cicero was above all else a rhetor, many of the problems discussed are germane here.It's also helpful in seeing the difference between the theory of history and the actual practice, if contrasted to the mentions above. They give a "theory" on the problems of history and how to proceed. Yet it's difficult to see any sort of practicality in their approach when dealing, for example, with Cicero.Bierce was ultimately right, I think.“History is an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”