Two Unconvincing Mythicist “Criteria of Inauthenticity”

Two “criteria of inauthenticity” that I have encountered used by mythicist have been on my mind today. One is the argument that early Christians are inherently untrustworthy when it comes to the matter of Jesus’ existence, since they were committed to him and so had a bias towards believing he existed.

This seems entirely backwards – like saying that I am biased towards believing James Dunn exists because I was his student, or that you are biased towards believing I exist because you enjoy reading my blog. 

I wonder whether mythicists could not even take on Descartes: “You think, therefore you exist?” Why would you let yourself be persuaded by such an argument, when you are obviously biased in favor of your own existence and thus untrustworthy when it comes to such matters?

The other problematic criterion claims that, if something in the New Testament resembles some detail in Scripture, that is reason to believe that the story was fabricated on the basis of that Scripture.

The problem is that we know that early Christians (like more recent Christians) often connect their own experiences with Scripture.

Are we really to conclude that Paul could not have had a genuine personal experience of a sense of calling, because he couches his mention of it in language borrowed from a description of Jeremiah’s sense of calling? Or that some Jews in Paul’s time did not reject the Christian message, simply because Paul quotes Scripture in reference to it? Surely given the quotations from Scripture, it is more natural to conclude that he invented the whole thing from Scripture, isn’t it?

I am unimpressed by these arguments. What arguments have you found mythicists to use that you find unpersuasive? If you find these mythicist arguments persuasive, perhaps you would be so kind as to explain why.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03663871073350593776 Hjalti

    "One is the argument that early Christians are inherently untrustworthy when it comes to the matter of Jesus' existence, since they were committed to him and so had a bias towards believing he existed."Yes, this is indeed at strange argument. Where did you encounter it? Are we talking about people like Bob Price and Earl Doherty or some guy on the internet?"The other problematic criterion claims that, if something in the New Testament resembles some detail in Scripture, that is reason to believe that the story was fabricated on the basis of that Scripture."But, surely there is a valid place for this sort of argument. When some gospel story is very similar to something in the OT, isn't it reasonable to think that the story might just be based on the OT? Like many of the details related to crucifixion?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Personally, I can't grasp why it would really matter whether there was a historical Jesus or not. Both ways of understand "the Christian faith" are based on some sort of "tradition", whether one want to believe in the O.T. myth tradition or myths from other nations. The only reason, is if one is interested in understanding the split/separation/history of the development of the Jewish/Islamic traditions, and how Christianity resembles Islamic development.

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

    Hjalti, the first argument came up in connection with an article that a commenter linked to recently. As for the second, I think we have enough examples of actual events being supplemented, embellished, or decorated with Scripture, or connected with Scripture in terms of supposed fulfillment, that it is unsafe to argue that use of Scripture alone counts against historicity. There may be good reasons to think that a particular instance is an example of Scripture turned into narrative rather than history viewed through the lens of Scripture – my point is just that the use of Scripture alone may not be enough to clarify which we're dealing with.

  • http://goulablogger.wordpress.com/ goulablogger

    And then there are those places in Matthew where he cites a proof text and all the good will in the world can't keep you from thinking, "How did he come up with that?"If early Christians were inventing Jesus, surely they would have chosen more straightforward prooftexts?Chuck Grantham

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09248241050776947372 Rev Tony B

    There have been a few books in recent years which have focussed on midrash, including Spong's book on the resurrection. The argument seems to be that if it is midrash, it is theological fiction, and not history or fact. This seems to me to be an unargued assumption, akin the Bultmann's assumption that myth must be unhistorical – comprehensively demolished by Pannenberg. Midrash seems to have been a common cultural method of doing theology – why is it so surprising that it would be used as a way of interpreting the events of Jesus' life and ministry? Just because a story is told in the light of scripture doesn't mean that there was no event to be interpreted in the light of scripture – indeed, it is more likely that there was something which gave rise to the interpretation than a story for the sake of a story.

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/ tomverenna

    Rev Tony B, yes you're quite right. So for each argued nonhistorical event, one needs to develop a case for probability that it is, in fact, not based on a historical event. One way to do that is to track the origins of the story. If its a story which has no parallel, that is the easiest way to remove the question of intertextuality (though, there rests the possibility is comes from an oral tradition which was never written down); though if there are strong philological and exegetical parallels with earlier stories (the earlier the better), then it is likely the story derived from earlier narratives. That doesn't exclude the possibility of a historical tradition, but now that would seem more coincidental than not. So one would have to argue that the historical event occurred based upon x evidence, right? And not simply coincidental to a historical event.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    "Early Christians"? Meaning like Irenaeus, or Clement of Rome? Or the evangelists, or who?I don't think the first is a particularly good argument in general, but we could look at a particular claim by a particular named and historical ancient person and see if they were writing under certain commitments that might bias their view. Historians do this all the time with sources. The problem with your modern examples is that we don't have any writings by anyone who stood in the putative relation to Jesus that you do to Dunn, or your readers to you.I think the author of that (not very persuasive) piece was trying to say something simpler, along the lines that we should not just take the gospels at face value as straightforward journalistic reportage, and even mainstream historicist scholars don't do that.As regards scripture historicized, I note a recurring theme in your treatment of mythicist arguments, as in your reply to Hajalti here, which is to take each line of questioning in isolation: "it is unsafe to argue that use of Scripture alone counts against historicity … the use of Scripture alone may not be enough to clarify which we're dealing with." Since as you aver we are ultimately dealing with probabilities, a single particular line of argument can only be part of a whole (and this goes for historicist arguments as much as for mythicist ones). Nobody should suggest that "use of scripture alone" is sufficient, just that it is an indication that a) those who penned narratives about Jesus lacked historical data about their subject, and b) that the interest of these authors was primarily theological and not historical or biographical.

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

    Umm — Who are these "mythicists" that argue what you say they argue, and, — umm — can you cite where they argue what you assert?Once again James McGrath sits back in his armchair smoking who-knows-what and coming up with any old thing he imagine "mythicists" argue. A name, a reference, a citation — you know, some actual argument, would be a reasonable thing to post about. But since James has said on several occasions he does not believe "mythicists" should be taken seriously, he thinks it quite kosher to concoct any straw man he can smoke up and have a bit of a laugh over.

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

    No links were included in the original post because I wrote it on a mobile device I am still trying to work out how to switch screens and look up addresses without losing what I have written.In a comment I linked to the place where the first was brought up. The second relates to a discussion on Tom Verenna's blog.

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/ tomverenna

    My point was not raised in conjunction with mythicism and, as I've stated before, I am not a mythicist…I am agnostic towards a historical figure of Jesus.

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

    Thanks for clarifying your outlook, Tom. It seemed to me that, in your post, you were suggesting not that the possibility of invention based on a literary prototype leads to agnosticism about historicity, but that it leads to the presumption of ahistoricity. I may have misunderstood your argument, but it certainly seems to me to at the very least to have been worded in a way that is prone to mythicists understanding it in this way, if it isn't clarified.

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/ tomverenna

    Fair enough; I can understand how, based off my previous positions, it would have been easy to interpret my statements as such. I thought the tone of my argument rested with the value of Acts' narrative function as scriptural exegesis and imitatio rather than historiography. Simply that we must utilize more caution and express our methods more thoroughly prior to making a claim towards historicity about specific events such as Paul being lowered from a basket.

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

    James, you wrote that "mythicists" (generic) argue for a particular "criterion of inauthenticity" that holds that writings are not to be trusted if and because they are written by committed believers. Do I understand your claim correctly? (A straight Yes or No will do and avoid potential confusion.)I asked you to cite where you have found this actual argument in the real world by a mythicist. In response you point to an article by someone who is not described as a mythicist in that article. Do you know if Jackson Doughart is himself a mythicist? I see no evidence for this in his article. Moreover, the closest I can find to your opening argument is that Doughart writes in his fourth paragraph that there are two specific facts about the evidence that do NOT disprove his existence, but at least open up the question to debate. So I conclude that your claim that "mythicists" argue for point one is quite without merit. Now I am sure one can find someone making such a claim somewhere, but when one does one will then need to establish why one believes that this source does indeed stand for generic mythicists. Until then, you appear to be willing to distort a statement that is found within the context of a request to take the debate about Jesus existence seriously. Presumably the intent is to denigrate a position that you have said repeatedly should not be taken seriously. Once again, it appears that your insistence that a viewpoint should not be taken seriously extends to misrepresention. This is ironic since it is the sought of thing that the target of that article (Shea) does and that is being addressed by the article in question.

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

    sort, not 'sought'

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

    Neil, there are so few mythicists, and if addressing the claims of one does not prove applicable to others, then so much the worse for mythicism. I've had mythicists point to the failure of mainstream historians to reach consensus about the character of Jesus as though that should undermine our confidence about his existence, his crucifixion, and other major details that are not the subject of dispute among historians. So if the tiny number of mythicists there are cannot even agree and persuade one another, where does that leave mythicism?

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/ tomverenna

    In the same place where the large group of historicists who can't agree and persuade one another exist…

  • Anonymous

    Jackson Doughart is a well known crank. Among other things, he wants the Canadian government to make circumcision illegal.http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2011/01/24/jackson-doughart-on-circumcision-infants-cant-choose/

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

    James, if there are so few mythicists then it should not be difficult to actually name the one(s) you claim argue a certain point, and it should be quite easy to cite what the person in question actually does argue. So I am doubly surprised that, in order to justify your assertion that "mythicists" argue X, you should point to an article that does not appear to be written by a mythicist and that does not argue X.You once again trot out the line: "I've had mythicists point to the failure of mainstream historians to reach consensus about the character of Jesus as though that should undermine our confidence about his existence." This sounds to me like a lampoon of an argument I do know. So it would be helpful if you could actually cite or directly point to the argument you are referring to.I have asked you in relation to this on another occasion to similarly cite the person you are referring to and what their argument actually is and do not know that you have ever responded. Presumably such an effort would suggest you are taking the arguments of "mythicists" seriously.

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

    I apologize that I increasingly use a device for blogging that does not facilitate looking up citations while blogging. But the truth is that in most instances this would involve linking to comments on this blog, or at most to another blog.It seems ironic to me that a fringe group that claims to be defending mainstream historiography, yet can do little more than recycle a handful of mined quotes that supposedly support it and produces no serious publications, would complain that they are not being cited properly.If you don't recognize yourself in the views I am addressing, then I am probably not talking about you. Since you have your own blog, when I am talking about something that you have written, I normally provide a link if I am able to or at least refer to you by name.I currently treat mythicism far more seriously than it deserves. When the standard of mythicist argument improves, I guarantee that so will the level of seriousness of my treatment of it.

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

    When I discuss other views on my blog I generally name the person who holds the view and quote a line or two of theirs to demonstrate or sum up the view I am discussing. Believe me, it is not at all hard to do — even on a blog.Nor do I at any time suggest that the view I am discussing is indicative of a wider group unless I have solid grounds and evidence for saying this. That is also a not very difficult principle to apply, even in a blog.

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

    And I was not suggesting that it is hard to do in a blog, just that it is hard to on a blog via an iPad, since it reloads the page if you switch to a different tab.

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

    And I also modify what I post to my blog according to the tool I am using. If I am using a device that will not allow me to do justice to a person or view then I refrain from posting until I have the opportunity to use the tools required. I acknowledge that this limits what I do send to my blog with some devices. But even so, it is still possible to do a quick check to see what was actually said and who said it and use the copy and paste mechanism to transfer that information to a blog comment even with most of the simpler devices. Or failing the copy and paste, doing such a check will itself potentially help you avoid claiming a generic group argues something it does not in fact argue. At least it might help you distinguish between a lampoon of an argument, or a straw man, and what persons do actually say.I am surprised I have to give lessons in such basics to an associate professor.

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

    Ipad tip: copy the text you want to quote to the Notes app; open the page where you wish to type your blog post or comment, and copy and paste if necessary from the Notes app. Works for me.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    I simply don't understand Neil's consternation over citing. As I've said before, I think this is an informal medium, and if Neil has never seen such views, awesome, they don't merit being seen, and its good they don't get around, it is a waste of mental space that could be directed to interesting discussion.

  • Anonymous

    There appears to be a technical hitch that will not allow further comments from me here, so I wonder if my response at http://wp.me/p2lgb-4HX will get through. Neil Godfreyhttp://wp.me/p2lgb-4HX

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Jeez I had never seen an I-pad until a year ago and now you're a shitty professor if you aren't proficient in one. I'm Doomed!

  • Anonymous

    Neil appears to have a bee in his bonnet about something.

  • Anonymous

    As usual Mike W1584 completely misses the point of the discussion. Perhaps, Mike, you would like to justify any person's failure to do justice to a discussion on the grounds that the tools at hand do not allow one to avoid –1. tarnishing a whole group (a very small group, let's say) by one particular argument encountered from one person2. accurately presenting the argument in question or failing to link to it in some way or identify where others can find it, or to simply quote a line or two of it, thus avoiding the risk of a straw man fallacy (admittedly this would imply one is taking the argument seriously)3. identifying who in fact does argue what is claimed4. claiming that specific points in an article apparently not by a mythicist is representative of mythicists5. claiming that an article says something it clearly does not say6. removing my comments when I explain how the above faults can be avoided even if one is using an iPad.Neil Godfrey http://wp.me/p2lgb-4HX

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

    I am starting to think that there are no mythicists. They are a myth, merely an invention of mainstream scholarship to serve as a foil to our views.But the regular commenters at Vridar who come over here sure sound like mythicists, and if you think the views I am arguing against are ridiculous, surely you could do more over on your blog to address them, before they make their way over here…

  • Anonymous

    Update: make that two bees in his bonnet!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15440085904486295053 flash173

    Those mystisicms dont make any sence anyway. there stating fundamental truths about human behaviour. if we wish things to be true we make them true by convincing enough people of the same thing. and why would that only apply to early christians. nothings changed we still like to believe that he existed because we are followers. and as for the second part we know that the first recorded scripture only came to be wrote years after jesus existed and therefore was a secondary source so of course parts will be fabricated this again is stating the obvious. there both completely useless at persuading anyone other that blind devotees.

  • NateP

    As per usual, Neil seems to be the only one standing up for the proper ins and outs of critical thinking and argumentation. To fault him for taking logic and method seriously is to laugh at the goal of accuracy. And why on earth would you spend your time surfing/dialoguing on blogs if you weren't ultimately interested in the TRUTH of the matter? Is seems cartoonish when some of you go the lengths you do to twist, sidestep, or childishly mock the serious inquiries of someone that happens to disagree with you.

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

    When have I ever faulted Neil Godfrey for taking logic and method seriously? Do you really mean what your language seems to imply, namely that mainstream historical scholarship has gone completely astray, and a lone blog crusader is the only one who stands against the tide?

  • Anonymous

    Jesus Mythicism truly is the Creationism of the New Atheists.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    The Internet was made to make heroes out of lonely people in their basements. If people weren't mind controlled could their even be a Christianity, Capitalism, or the state of Israel?Neil, I still don't fault James' style. I have seen people make those arguments so I don't need the citation. It would be like James making a post about how he remembers when gas was a dollar a gallon and some one demanding a source. As for the comments tarring all mythicist(and off hand, how many living Phd's in relevant fields hold that view, Price and Carrier? Two out of how many total? I'm not saying they can't be the vanguard of a new paradigm, but let us keep this in perspective). I see the same couple come up over and over. Is it really , I assume that a phrase like "two arguments used by mythacist" to means some thing like "two shows watched by Americans". It does not imply all of the above do those things. That this sort of thing is a big hang up for is not surprising, you have the imagination of an automaton and I think that is why your analysis of ancient works and the meanings the authors are intending convey are so off. For a citation I recommend spending a couple of hours reading post here http://vridar.wordpress.com/ A free plug! I am convinced most people will conclude you need a long holiday away from the computer.

  • Anonymous

    Straw man!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14299188458940897810 Evan

    Just a quick comment that as far as I know Dr. McGrath has never deleted, edited, modified or blocked any of my comments, ever.


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