Blogging about Jesus Mythicism: The story so far

Regular readers of Exploring Our Matrix know that one of the topics I have been blogging about for some time is mythicism – the viewpoint that Jesus is more likely to be a purely fictional figure invented more-or-less from scratch based on earlier mythical figures and texts, than to be a historical figure around whom myths and legends subsequently developed. It is not a viewpoint that historians and scholars find persuasive, and since the agreement of experts often fails to mitigate the spread of ill-founded ideas on the internet, I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to explaining why almost no one who knows anything about how historical scholarship works, or takes the time to be well informed about ancient Judaism and/or the New Testament, finds the claims of mythicists to represent scholarship of any sort, much less persuasive scholarship.

On this blog in its old location, I recently posted a round-up of my earlier blogging on this subject, which I thought it would be useful to link to. I had also begun blogging through Earl Doherty’s tome, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus, and so I likewise thought that a round-up of links to my previous blog posts about that book should be posted here before proceeding further.

Beginning Blogging Earl Doherty’s Book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man

The Introduction to Earl Doherty’s Book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Interlude

If Your Claims Are Unpersuasive, Is It My Fault?

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Dealing Appropriately with Pseudoscholarship

Overview of Part 1

Very shortly I will pick up where I left off. with part two.

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  • Anonymous

    I think it’s valuable that Dr. McGrath repeatedly points out that the opinions of experts are the crux of his case. He presents the core of his case in statements like:

    It is not a viewpoint that historians and scholars find persuasive, and since the agreement of experts often fails to mitigate the spread of ill-founded ideas on the internet, I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to explaining why almost no one who knows anything about how historical scholarship works, or takes the time to be well informed about ancient Judaism and/or the New Testament, finds the claims of mythicists to represent scholarship of any sort, much less persuasive scholarship.

    So I think when the consensus of experts is the core of a case, there should be few, if any cases where the core of experts were spectacularly wrong.

    In most of the cases above, people died as a result of the failure of experts. One might think that expert opinion about the historical Jesus could not have such an effect and is thus less important, but there is evidence to the contrary.

    People who blindly trust authority, without examining the evidence for themselves are like Britney Spears. It’s a good thing that Dr. McGrath is so forthright with his judgment that mythicism is nonsense, pseudoscholarship and against the consensus of mainstream historical methods. I simply invite those who believed in the economy of 1929, not treating high blood pressure, the Vietnam War, the benefits of hormone replacement, the Iraq War and other expert consensus opinions to trust him as well.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      And I invite the young-earth creationists, cdesign proponentsists, Birthers, antivaxers and Holocaust deniers to give mythicism a try as something that it likely to be right up their alley. :-)

      I have always coupled my emphasis on the fact that serious scholars find mythicism to be bunk with an explanation of why.

      As for your broader point, it is true that experts can be wrong. But that rarely means that their armchair critics were right while they were wrong.

  • beallen0417

    I think it’s valuable that Dr. McGrath repeatedly points out that the opinions of experts are the crux of his case. He presents the core of his case in statements like:

    It is not a viewpoint that historians and scholars find persuasive, and since the agreement of experts often fails to mitigate the spread of ill-founded ideas on the internet, I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to explaining why almost no one who knows anything about how historical scholarship works, or takes the time to be well informed about ancient Judaism and/or the New Testament, finds the claims of mythicists to represent scholarship of any sort, much less persuasive scholarship.

    So I think when the consensus of experts is the core of a case, there should be few, if any cases where the core of experts were spectacularly wrong.

    In most of the cases above, people died as a result of the failure of experts. One might think that expert opinion about the historical Jesus could not have such an effect and is thus less important, but there is evidence to the contrary.

    People who blindly trust authority, without examining the evidence for themselves are like Britney Spears. It’s a good thing that Dr. McGrath is so forthright with his judgment that mythicism is nonsense, pseudoscholarship and against the consensus of mainstream historical methods. I simply invite those who believed in the economy of 1929, not treating high blood pressure, the Vietnam War, the benefits of hormone replacement, the Iraq War and other expert consensus opinions to trust him as well.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      And I invite the young-earth creationists, cdesign proponentsists, Birthers, antivaxers and Holocaust deniers to give mythicism a try as something that it likely to be right up their alley. :-)

      I have always coupled my emphasis on the fact that serious scholars find mythicism to be bunk with an explanation of why.

      As for your broader point, it is true that experts can be wrong. But that rarely means that their armchair critics were right while they were wrong.

  • EvanG

    one of the topics I have been blogging about for some time is mythicism – the viewpoint that Jesus is more likely to be a purely fictional figure invented more-or-less from scratch based on earlier mythical figures and texts, than to be a historical figure around whom myths and legends subsequently developed.

    This is, of course, a self-serving definition of mythicism (such as it is) by an opponent.

    While I think “mythicism” generally is intended as something of a slur (like calling many evangelicals “fundamentalists”), and while the views of those who question the historicity of Jesus are no more monolithic than the views of Christians, I think a better definition of such skeptics would be “the viewpoint that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Jesus’s historicity is more likely than not.”

    Of course, that’s harder to criticize or caricature.

    And, of course, when you state that “[i]t is not a viewpoint that historians and scholars find persuasive,” you (1) conflate historians and religious scholars, falsely suggesting that religious scholars have the same training, expertise, and lack of bias as secular historians, and (2) simply misstate the facts, since some historians and scholars do in fact consider the argument that “there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Jesus’s historicity is more likely than not” persuasive.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      EvanG, “(Jesus) mythicism” is Doherty’s term, and so if you have a complaint you can address it to him. Whether he derived it from others who used it pejoratively, I cannot say.

      Which historians who aren’t religious scholars (or did you mean religion scholars?) did you have in mind in your last point?

  • EvanG

    one of the topics I have been blogging about for some time is mythicism – the viewpoint that Jesus is more likely to be a purely fictional figure invented more-or-less from scratch based on earlier mythical figures and texts, than to be a historical figure around whom myths and legends subsequently developed.

    This is, of course, a self-serving definition of mythicism (such as it is) by an opponent.

    While I think “mythicism” generally is intended as something of a slur (like calling many evangelicals “fundamentalists”), and while the views of those who question the historicity of Jesus are no more monolithic than the views of Christians, I think a better definition of such skeptics would be “the viewpoint that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Jesus’s historicity is more likely than not.”

    Of course, that’s harder to criticize or caricature.

    And, of course, when you state that “[i]t is not a viewpoint that historians and scholars find persuasive,” you (1) conflate historians and religious scholars, falsely suggesting that religious scholars have the same training, expertise, and lack of bias as secular historians, and (2) simply misstate the facts, since some historians and scholars do in fact consider the argument that “there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Jesus’s historicity is more likely than not” persuasive.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      EvanG, “(Jesus) mythicism” is Doherty’s term, and so if you have a complaint you can address it to him. Whether he derived it from others who used it pejoratively, I cannot say.

      Which historians who aren’t religious scholars (or did you mean religion scholars?) did you have in mind in your last point?

  • EvanG

    First, obviously, my complaint is with your ongoing use of “mythicist,” which appears to be pejorative, regardless of whether one particular person, Doherty, also uses it. (Some conservative Christians don’t object to the use of “fundamentalist,” either.) As I noted above, people who are skeptical of the historical Jesus aren’t monolithic, and don’t all (or even mostly) label themselves as “mythicists.”

    Second, as for historians and scholars of religion, let’s start with my personal favorite, Burton Mack, a New Testament scholar with whom I assume you’re familiar. Here are a few lines from his wonderful The Christian Myth:

    The guild [of New Testament scholarship] pretends to be an academic discipline, but in fact resists the pursuit of a theoretical framework and the accompanying rules of argumentation necessary for coming to agreement about matters of data, method, explanation, and replication of experiments or research projects. These are foundational matters for an academic discipline. To resist them indicates that something else of importance must be driving the energies of the quest [for the historical Jesus] for reasons other than academic. . . .

    Or Thomas L. Thompson. Or R. Joseph Hoffman (an actual historian of religion). But are you looking for a list, and if so, what purpose would it serve?

    You may be trying to claim, as you have many times before, that “the vast majority” of historical Jesus scholars believe that Jesus is historical. Which is about the same as saying that the vast majority of astrologers believe that astrology is valid. If you don’t believe in it, how likely is it that you’ll dedicate your life and/or career to studying the field?

  • EvanG

    First, obviously, my complaint is with your ongoing use of “mythicist,” which appears to be pejorative, regardless of whether one particular person, Doherty, also uses it. (Some conservative Christians don’t object to the use of “fundamentalist,” either.) As I noted above, people who are skeptical of the historical Jesus aren’t monolithic, and don’t all (or even mostly) label themselves as “mythicists.”

    Second, as for historians and scholars of religion, let’s start with my personal favorite, Burton Mack, a New Testament scholar with whom I assume you’re familiar. Here are a few lines from his wonderful The Christian Myth:

    The guild [of New Testament scholarship] pretends to be an academic discipline, but in fact resists the pursuit of a theoretical framework and the accompanying rules of argumentation necessary for coming to agreement about matters of data, method, explanation, and replication of experiments or research projects. These are foundational matters for an academic discipline. To resist them indicates that something else of importance must be driving the energies of the quest [for the historical Jesus] for reasons other than academic. . . .

    Or Thomas L. Thompson. Or R. Joseph Hoffman (an actual historian of religion). But are you looking for a list, and if so, what purpose would it serve?

    You may be trying to claim, as you have many times before, that “the vast majority” of historical Jesus scholars believe that Jesus is historical. Which is about the same as saying that the vast majority of astrologers believe that astrology is valid. If you don’t believe in it, how likely is it that you’ll dedicate your life and/or career to studying the field?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @EvanG, I’ll gladly call “mythicists” something else as long as it is meaningful and accurate. What would you suggest?

    You have made reference to the emeritus John Wesley Professor in Early Christianity at a school of theology, who is at any rate not a mythicist, a professor of theology whose main area of research is Hebrew Bible/ancient Israel, and a historian of religion who did not manage to altogether avoid a divinity school in the course of his training, and is probably best described as an agnostic about the existence of Jesus, rather than a mythicist. So I don’t see how this list helps you. Why not mention some better examples of secular historians – perhaps Michael Grant and Robin Lane Fox? Or if being critical is all that matters, why not mention Paula Fredriksen, Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, and many others whose conclusions are clearly not promoting sectarian religious perspectives? Are they left off your list for any reason other than the fact that their views are even further from mythicism than your examples?

    One could point out that mythicists accept mythicism as astrologers accept astrology. Those comparisons get us nowhere, although if one is going to make them at all, presumably it is the viewpoint that is generally not taken seriously by professionals in institutions of higher education that ought to be compared to astrology, rather than a viewpoint that uses the tools and methods and whose conclusions are accepted in departments of history. Otherwise it is a mere attempt at denigration through labeling, by means of a comparison that has no substance to it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @EvanG, I’ll gladly call “mythicists” something else as long as it is meaningful and accurate. What would you suggest?

    You have made reference to the emeritus John Wesley Professor in Early Christianity at a school of theology, who is at any rate not a mythicist, a professor of theology whose main area of research is Hebrew Bible/ancient Israel, and a historian of religion who did not manage to altogether avoid a divinity school in the course of his training, and is probably best described as an agnostic about the existence of Jesus, rather than a mythicist. So I don’t see how this list helps you. Why not mention some better examples of secular historians – perhaps Michael Grant and Robin Lane Fox? Or if being critical is all that matters, why not mention Paula Fredriksen, Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, and many others whose conclusions are clearly not promoting sectarian religious perspectives? Are they left off your list for any reason other than the fact that their views are even further from mythicism than your examples?

    One could point out that mythicists accept mythicism as astrologers accept astrology. Those comparisons get us nowhere, although if one is going to make them at all, presumably it is the viewpoint that is generally not taken seriously by professionals in institutions of higher education that ought to be compared to astrology, rather than a viewpoint that uses the tools and methods and whose conclusions are accepted in departments of history. Otherwise it is a mere attempt at denigration through labeling, by means of a comparison that has no substance to it.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, by all means let’s bring up Paula Frederiksen:

    “The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They’re not biographies.”

    Evidently she doesn’t agree with Reverend Professor Burridge, as Dr. McGrath apparently does.

    • GakuseiDon

      beallen, Paula Fredriksen writes in “Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ”

      “The term “historical biography” cannot be used without qualification to categorize Mark’s gospel. He is not a historian in either the ancient or the modern sense… Yet the term is not wholly inappropriate, for Mark does offer a story, set in the past, whose ostensible subject is the earthly Jesus.

      … Because Mark presented the kerygma as historical biography, he did not need to appeal to another authority, be it tradition… or revelation.”

  • beallen0417

    Yes, by all means let’s bring up Paula Frederiksen:

    “The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They’re not biographies.”

    Evidently she doesn’t agree with Reverend Professor Burridge, as Dr. McGrath apparently does.

    • GakuseiDon

      beallen, Paula Fredriksen writes in “Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ”

      “The term “historical biography” cannot be used without qualification to categorize Mark’s gospel. He is not a historian in either the ancient or the modern sense… Yet the term is not wholly inappropriate, for Mark does offer a story, set in the past, whose ostensible subject is the earthly Jesus.

      … Because Mark presented the kerygma as historical biography, he did not need to appeal to another authority, be it tradition… or revelation.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @beallen0147, you do understand that Fredriksen is not suggesting that Jesus did not exist, right? There are debates about the precise genre of the Gospels among historians and scholars, but it sounds like you may be either misunderstanding or deliberately misconstruing that, much as young-earth creationists do when they misunderstand or deliberately misconstrue scientists’ disagreements over some of the details about the course or mechanisms if evolution as though they were debates about whether evolution itself happened.

    Is there any chance you got that quote via some Internet source that mined it to deceive?

    At any rate, both Fredriksen and Burridge would agree that the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense, that not everying recounted in them happened, and that there was a historical figure of Jesus.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @beallen0147, you do understand that Fredriksen is not suggesting that Jesus did not exist, right? There are debates about the precise genre of the Gospels among historians and scholars, but it sounds like you may be either misunderstanding or deliberately misconstruing that, much as young-earth creationists do when they misunderstand or deliberately misconstrue scientists’ disagreements over some of the details about the course or mechanisms if evolution as though they were debates about whether evolution itself happened.

    Is there any chance you got that quote via some Internet source that mined it to deceive?

    At any rate, both Fredriksen and Burridge would agree that the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense, that not everying recounted in them happened, and that there was a historical figure of Jesus.


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