Mythicism vs. the Socratic Historians

A recent post on Vridar illustrates one of the many problems with mythicism. One of the axioms of historical study (which, when ignored, leaves one doing apologetics instead) is that sources should be treated fairly. Accepting claims to the miraculous when found in the Bible while rejecting them when found elsewhere is not historical scholarship.

And neither is ridiculing those who find the evidence for the historical figure of Jesus as idiots, while treating those who view Socrates as a historical figure as sane and rational.

Neil Godfrey offers an extended assertion that history should only proceed where there is primary evidence in von Ranke’s sense. To quote Godfrey:

“Real” historians begin with, work with, facts that all historians and public readers can empirically verify are facts. There is of course the issue of probability. But I am talking here about empirically verifiable evidence or sources such as telegrams and inscriptions. I am also talking about evidence from secondary sources that can be independently and multiply verified and whose probability is also enhanced through such external corroboration and literary analysis.

Godfrey then offers this exception he found among books in the history section of a local bookstore:

There was one exception to this in the ancient history section. I did find two books on “the historical Socrates” – pictured above. The authors (or one of them, I don’t recall which) justified their books by pointing to the independently corroborated contemporary evidence for Socrates: Plato’s assertion that Socrates was a friend of the playwright Aristophanes is supported by references to Socrates in Aristophanes’ plays. None of this is primary evidence in von Ranke’s usage of the term. But since the evidence involves multiple and truly independent attestation, it does give some weight to the probability of the historicity of Socrates.

What I cannot understand is why Godfrey is willing to tolerate this non-empirical approach to history, even allowing that in these cases textual evidence alone might enable a historian to say that Socrates probably existed – just as I’ve suggested that a historian may, on the basis of the textual sources we have available, say something similar about Socrates. Not with certainty, as I’ve always emphasized, but in terms of probability.

It seems to me that here we get at the heart of the matter. If mythicists were interested in historical method for its own sake, they would be addressing the case of Socrates differently. If they were determined to deny the historicity of Socrates, we’d be hearing about how late the copies are of texts that mention him, and the possibility of interpolation. We’d be hearing emphasized that he is mentioned as a character in a play and in dialogues that are clearly intended to illustrate philosophical points rather than provide historical information. We’d have arguments that Xenophon turns Socrates into a real figure the way the Gospel authors are alleged by mythicists to have turned Paul’s doctrines into narrative.

A commenter on the post at Vridar asks why mythicism is not respected. Above all else, this is the reason. Mythicism isn’t about treating historical sources in the same way across the board. It is entirely the purview of people with a vendetta against Christianity, although even in such circles there are plenty who do not find it persuasive.

And it must be emphasized that it is taken no more seriously among mainstream historians than in Biblical studies. Indeed, less so. The practitioners of mythicism are not historians by profession, but people with degrees in fields like Biblical studies and theology, when they have higher degrees at all related to this subject. The very sorts of degrees the holders of which Neil Godfrey regularly disparages.

And so more than anything else, the issue is not simply that mythicists use unpersuasive arguments but the same methods as everyone else. No, apparently almost all historians missed the memo requiring that mainstream historians not try to ascertain probability when there are no inscriptions (telegrams are out of the question in the ancient world) and so they continue to discuss figures such as Socrates. And it is possible to explore in a sane and rational way the possibility that he was invented. But it is also possible to discuss rationally, and make a case for, his having existed, without inscriptions or telegrams. And that is clear evidence that the methods used by historians investigating Jesus are not unique to that particular area of ancient history. And to the extent that they are distinctive, such as in formulating specific, clearly-defined criteria of authenticity, it is because the figure of Jesus is so very controversial that, on the one hand, people have a vested theological interest that can skew what they see, while on the other hand, others have a vested interest in denying Jesus’ existence, so much so that they will see plainly and even highlight what historians do in cases similar to that of Jesus, and yet remain unwilling to apply the same approach fairly across the board.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Do you feel that the criteria developed to study Jesus historicity have been successful and fruitful?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Not all of them, and not entirely. But to some extent, certainly. The "criteria of authenticity" are an attempt to be rigorous and explicit with respect to methodology. And so I think they remain useful, even if they don't deliver on the kind of certainty that some have (unrealistically) hoped that they might.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    There was one exception to this in the ancient history section. I did find two books on “the historical Socrates” – pictured above. The authors (or one of them, I don’t recall which) justified their books by pointing to the independently corroborated contemporary evidence for Socrates: Plato’s assertion that Socrates was a friend of the playwright Aristophanes is supported by references to Socrates in Aristophanes’ plays. None of this is primary evidence in von Ranke’s usage of the term. But since the evidence involves multiple and truly independent attestation, it does give some weight to the probability of the historicity of Socrates.Among a few scholars there has been some question even about the historicity of Socrates.I think here he has explained the difference in evidence between Jesus and Socrates, and links to scholars who doubt the existence of Socrates.I think you two are "reading" past each other.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I don't think so. If he wanted to, Neil could account for this apparent reference to a historical person knowing Socrates the same way he accounts for the references to Jesus' brother, to Jesus having had a meal with his disciples, and so on. My point is that the evidence is comparable and his treatment of them is not, nor is his treatment of the historians who work on each figure.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    James completely ignores what I wrote about the study of Socrates, and his post once again completly ignores (even contradicts, once again) what I have actually, from the beginning, pointed out about the nature of historical evidence and method. I introduced the point about Socrates into my post not because I thought it was a good way to undermine my own arugment, but to demonstrate a point I have made from the beginning of all my discussions about historical methodology. James has regularly taken my words and points about primary and secondary evidence and accused me of arguing that history can only be done with primary evidence, when I have never argued any such thing, and have regularly pointed this out to him. (1) What we have in the case of Socrates is secondary evidence that, on the grounds of literary criticism, and especially on the grounds of its multiple and undeniably independent/external corroborative nature, is of a qualitatively different order from what we have for Jesus. It is the sort of evidence that Schweitzer and E. Schwartz and others have long pointed out that we lack for Jesus, and that does not even allow us to theoretically raise the historical existence of Jesus to a "positive probability".The evidence for Socrates, as I have pointed out numerous times, is stronger for his historicity than anything we have for Jesus — and I have made this point to demonstrate that there are cases where historical probability can be inferred in the absence of primary evidence. At the same time, the probability is marginal, and not strong, as point (2) demonstrates – - – -(2) It is permissible in acedemia to raise the question of the historicity of Socrates. Some academics have been questioning his existence at least as long ago as when I was a student. Few academics would consider the evidence we have would allow any books to be written about the historical Socrates — hence the rarity, the exceptional cases, of the ones I referred to.(3) James, as far as I have been able to recently learn, is not a historian and has no qualifications or background in historical studies. He has never demonstrated any knowledge of the nature of history as practiced beyond biblical studies, fails to grasp the necessary and fundamental connection between literary analysis of documents and historical investigation, and has repeatedly indicated his failure to understand the most basic concepts of the historical enterprise, such as the nature of historical evidence itself. He has asked for names of historians not connected with biblical studies who discuss historical methodology and philosophy, and I have posted on some of the most prominent such names in the twentieth century. I have yet to see any evidence James has read any of these, but he has recommended a Wikipedia article on Historical Method that lists points of 'historical methods' — yet failing to think through those points. Those points fail to address the complexities facing historians, and 17 of them even allow for historians do "do history" on the understanding that God writes books and miracles happen. Of course James disagrees with those two things being allowe into historical studies, but the fact that he could recommend an article that allows for such possibilities demonstrates his naivety in discussions of historical methodology.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    James writes: "If he wanted to, Neil could account for this apparent reference to a historical person knowing Socrates the same way he accounts for the references to Jesus' brother, to Jesus having had a meal with his disciples, and so on."The difference is exactly the point I have been making in my reference to the evidence for Socrates. The references to the brother of the Lord, and Jesus having meals with his disciples, are all from the one Christian tradition. This would be comparable to relying on Plato and Aristotle alone (two rivals, but from the same tradition) for something of which we have no contemporary external corroboration.Schweitzer knew what he was talking about when he said: "Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability."Plato and Aristophanes are an analog of Christian and secular sources. The existence of Socrates can be questioned even though the evidence for his existence is stronger than that for Jesus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, let me see if I can figure this out. If a playwright mentions Socrates, that confirms his historicity, but if an author of a work that resembles Greco-Roman biography tells a story of the life of Jesus, you suspect that's pure fiction. Have I understood you correctly? am I wrong to get the sense that you basically discriminate against Christians, presumably because you believe them too stupid to be able to tell whether or not someone existed?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    And when academics question the existence of Socrates, do they insult and ridicule mainstream scholars and their methods the way you do? Did it ever occur to you that it makes it harder for scholars to take you seriously when you insult the mainstream scholarly enterprise (even though you pretend to be defending it)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    One last point. When someone responds to what you wrote, and you say they completely ignored it, that doesn't help you be taken seriously either.For someone who just castigated me for allowing myself to be less than respectful on occasion, you don't seem to have the slightest interest in following your own advice. And I think that is illustrative of your approach to history as well. You seem to be able to offer criticism of others, but not take it to heart yourself.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    You have not understood me correctly at all. I'm not sure you are even trying. You are now resorting once again to your ad hominems. You are avoiding the whole point about the nature of evidence itself. I don't discriminate against Christian evidence in the least. I attempt to study Christian evidence by the same principles and standards I study any ancient documents. There are a number of Greco-Roman biographies about "pagan" persons that I regard as very probably fictional. "Suspecting" any of these is fiction (you use the phrase 'pure fiction', not me) is a sensible, even scholarly, approach. No-one is talking about "hyperscepticism" by the way.All you have to do is actually read any one of my posts in which I do discuss the principles of historical inquiry and the nature of historical evidence to which I have linked here many times. But as in your post here, you only read part of what I write, and argue a point without any reference to the other part of my post that addresses — and belies — the very point you erroneously claim I am saying.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I think I have indeed understood you correctly. You said that you would trust philosophers using a character to illustrate philosophical ideas and a playwright but you wouldn't trust a person who says he met Jesus' brother, attributing to that opponent a status he would scarcely be inclined to make up.Perhaps you simply can't see your own biases, but to me they seem fairly obvious.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    James wrote: "One last point. When someone responds to what you wrote, and you say they completely ignored it, that doesn't help you be taken seriously either."Well if you had addressed my points about historical method and what I actually said about the evidence for Socrates, and the nature of historical evidence itself, I would not have any need to point out your ignoring or distorting of my points.I am sceptical about the historicity of Socrates. I think he may well have existed, but I am not absolutely sure and, like some academics, do see good reasons to question this. Does this sound like I am discriminating against Christianity when I point out that the nature of the evidence for Jesus is qualitatively less for Jesus than for Socrates?You seem to just assume I am anti-Christian. I have posted several times on the positives of Christianity, and of religion in general. It would be helpful if you tried to remove what seem to be prejudicial assumptions.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    James said: "I think I have indeed understood you correctly. You said that you would trust philosophers using a character to illustrate philosophical ideas and a playwright but you wouldn't trust a person who says he met Jesus' brother, attributing to that opponent a status he would scarcely be inclined to make up."James demonstrates why he is not a historian. He has no grasp of the principles being discussed and appears to be out of his depth when I do discuss principles and methods.I have never once said anything remotely like "I would trust a philosopher etc" Other scholars have regularly pointed out that Plato uses Socrates as a literary figure for his own ideas. I see no reason whatever to assume historicity for Socrates on the basis of Plato alone.I have often wondered about Aristophanes, too, for reasons that will be too long to explain here.But I also concede that theoretically we do have here the appearance of multiple and truly independent sources for corroboration. That is a point of principle and method that you fail to grasp in any of my discussions.The existence of Socrates is questionable. It is debatable. The evidence is also qualitatively superior to that for Jesus. For you to accuse me of some sort of anti-Christian bias in any of this demonstrates your own prejudice against me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Neil, I'm not assuming anything. When a historian accepts the existence of Socrates, you don't seem to ever belittle them, accuse them of apologetics, denigrate their qualifications, or anything of the sort.You can say "I've said nice things about Christianity" but I've met racists who were capable of saying nice things on occasion about people with different skin color than themselves. But you very obviously treat scholars who find the evidence for Jesus plausible with a disdain and mockery that you do not seem to inflict upon those who draw a similar conclusion in a case of similar evidence. I don't see what other than bias and already-existing hostility can account for the very visible difference in the way you treat people.But I don't see any point in discussing this further. I've placed my own assumptions on this matter under the microscope, and have apologized when I felt I had been impolite or unkind. Your comments suggest that you have no interprets in doing likewise, and in particular that you can see what you believe is bias in others when all they do is find your arguments unpersuasive, while you seem either unwilling or unable to recognize your own biases.

  • http://www.fbcgh.net Eugene

    Hi Dr. McGrath. There has been a conflict over at Wikipedia for a long time over the Christ myth theory article, recently renamed the "Jesus myth theory". A while back the article looked like this (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jesus_myth_theory&oldid;=368870197), now it looks like this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_myth_theory). I'm interested to know which version you think better reflects the state of modern scholarship and which is more helpful to a novice seeking to familiarize himself with the issue. Thanks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment, Eugene. I had a read of several sections of the newer version, and took a quick look at the earlier one. The only thing that particularly jumped out at me is that the new one doesn't highlight the difference between minimalism and mythicism, which seems to me to be an important point. On the whole it seems to treat the subject in a way that neither gives undue credence nor shows undue disrespect.


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