Joseph Hoffmann on Mythicism, Skepticism, and Historical Reasoning

Joseph Hoffmann posted on whether “anything goes” in mythicism, providing a wonderful discussion of the appropriate and inappropriate sorts of “skepticism” and illustrating how historians reason about the evidence regarding Jesus. Around a lengthy treatment of Hegelianism, he writes things like this:

To say that Jesus is a plausible figure is thus merely to say the following: (1) His description fits the historical matrix from which it comes; (2) Allowing only for the credulity of writers and listeners of the time, there is nothing especially surprising about this description that would cause us to conclude it is fabricated or composed from assorted myths and legends, and (c) Lacking any positive grounds for thinking that the figure was invented through the fraudulence or malice of legend-spinners, it is more economical to think that it is a story (not an historical record) based upon the life and work of an historical individual. Saying only this and no more is saying that we prefer plausible explanations to more extravagant ones: that is what Occam’s razor requires us to do–to utilize and exploit the possibilities before us before spinning off into other possibilities that do not arise organically from the material in front of us and its closest known correlates.

Some responders who are deeply committed to mythicism (and use the word “historicism,” rather absurdly, to describe a “belief” in the historicity of Jesus) cling to a notion that the existence of the gospels do not “prove” that Jesus exists because it is just as “plausible” that

(a) they (the writers) were wrong about him or,

(b) they are talking about some other Jesus or some other character by some other name who was wearing a Jesus wig;  or

(c) are, for amusement or malice,  making the whole thing up.

Unfortunately, each of these invitations to skepticism is non-parsimonious; that is, they ask us without warrant to lay to one side the concrete information and what it says in favour of alternative explanations not warranted by either internal or external reasons for doing so.  Parsimony does not ask us to put skepticism on hold; it asks us to use skepticism methodologically rather than as a Pyrrhonic silver key that, at the extreme, calls final certainty about anything into question.  The effect of unbridled, unsystematic Pyrrhoinism has always been antagonistic to final knowledge about anything and mythtic utilization of the “It could be this, or that, or anything else, or nothing at all” suggests that sort of indifference to  a constructive skeptical approach to the Bible.  Hume’s rejection of Pyrrhonism might apply: “Philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it.” In short, the prior question–”What are we dealing with in the New Testament books and how can it efficiently be described” cannot begin with the belief that  all explanations have the same status and that all those rendering opinions have the same capacity to render good ones.

Click through to read the rest.

Of related interest, there is a conference about early Christianity and mystery cults.

Of tangential relatedness, Richard Carrier found Bart Ehrman’s appreciative remark about Christianity, in a book about Christianity, inappropriate.

 

  • Dave Mabus

     they didn’t survive Armageddon

    s1.zetaboards.com/LooseChangeForums/topic/4979676/1/

  • Claude

    I’ve noticed mythicists affecting not to know what Hoffmann means by “plausibility” although he’s explained it explicitly and repeatedly.

    But plausibility isn’t evidence!

    But plausibility isn’t historicity!

    But plausibility isn’t sufficient!

    LALALALALA

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Unfortunately, each of these invitations to skepticism is
    non-parsimonious; that is, they ask us without warrant to lay to one
    side the concrete information and what it says in favour of
    alternative explanations not warranted by either internal or external
    reasons for doing so.

    Two objections:

    (1) I don’t think that Hoffman fairly describes the invitations to skepticism that mythicism offers, but such hyperbole is so typical of these discussions that this is probably a fairly minor quibble.

    (2)  Isn’t Hoffman just begging the question when he accuses mythicists of wanting to lay aside “concrete information”?  Isn’t the whole issue whether the gospels contain concrete information? 

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

      Answer to (2): Only if one enters the circular argument of the mythicists, where Paul agreeing with the Gospels is ignored, that Paul says little about a topic is used as justification for pretending that what he does say isn’t clear, and all the other things that we’ve talked about.

      • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

        From what I have seen of Hoffman’s arguments, he doesn’t seem to be trying to put much weight on Paul, which is why I will be interested to see how he develops his argument in his book, assuming his blogging persona has not completely exhausted my patience by then.   

  • Brettongarcia

     We need to make sure everyone is clear on this; that is why we are emphasizing it.   Hoffmann is emphasizing “Plausibility” so far – and not historicity. Even his Jesus Process ended with a statement from Hoffmann that there just wasn’t enough information to say that Jesus did exist.

    Those who are applauding Hoffmann as an Historicist therefore, are missing something.  So far Hoffmann, strictly speaking, is not not actually an Historicist.

    Nore substantive matters:  how is plausibility established?   Here Hoffmann is inconsistent.  On the one hand, he seems to want to criticize Hegel’s idea that people are the product of their time and culture; on the other hand, he feels that plausibility is established by demonstrating that a given figure like Jesus, is consistent with … his time and culture.  Hoffmann and Historicism here by the way, relying on – guess what – “parallels.”  The very thing they criticize Mythicists for.

    Then?  Having admitted the important of parallels, we should ask next, WHICH parallels establish plausiblity.  Hoffmann simply assumes that parallels with myths, and known story-making abilities of writers of the time, are not significant.   Thus reversing his core tenet:  that parallels are important.

    Then?  He develops a straw man; asserting that a “fabrication” theory, a fabricated source, would be motivated only by “amusement” or “malice.”  Whereas in point of fact, the most likely motivation for fabricated story of Jesus, would be the same reason that Jesus and others perhaps, invented figures for parables:  the stories weren’t written to establish history, they wanted figures that would illustrate a moral point; to teach a moral lesson.  For this purpose, figures could be invented.  Rather as the Greek gods were no doubt largely invented, as symbols for various things.

    Then Hoffmann moves on to the assertion that those who doubt the real existence of a person reputed to walk on water, make bread appear out of thin air, and rise from the dead, as “Pyrrhonic” scepticism, is of course exaggerated; given the high proportion of “miracles” in our “Jesus.”   Given such a high percentage of these elements – over what is thought to be allowed for historical figures -  some real skepticism is justified.

    Is the Fabrication/Mythicist thesis non-parsimonious?  Compared to what?  Consider the whole complex and often contradictory body of material in Religious Studies, and Historicism, and Q theory, and Inspirational and Devotional material as a whole; the field is full of  masses of contradictory theories; vast amounts of them.  There is no parsimony in Theology, or Religious Studies.

    Why should the criterion of Parsimony therefore be applied only to Mythicists?  Why not Hoffmann himself?  And the whole of religious studies? 

    • Claude

      Hoffmann is emphasizing “Plausibility” so far – and not historicity.

      Yes, agreed.

      Even his Jesus Process ended with a statement from Hoffmann that there just wasn’t enough information to say that Jesus did exist.

      Where is this statement? I would be interested to read it. From what I read of Hoffmann’s reflections on the demise of the Jesus Project he was riled by a “myther” who requested a separate caucus for those participants “committed” to the notion that Jesus didn’t exist. (I mentioned all this to you in a former thread; not sure if you read it.) My impression was that Hoffmann thought this faction lacked rigor and undermined the entire project.

      On the one hand, he seems to want to criticize Hegel’s idea that people are the product of their time and culture; on the other hand, he feels that plausibility is established by demonstrating that a given figure like Jesus, is consistent with … his time and culture.

      I couldn’t really follow Hoffmann’s critique but from what I gathered he thinks the Hegelian approach threatened to obliterate any singular Jesus from the “conglomerate” of Hellenistic soteriology and the Judaic milieu. It is, he says,an “overgeneralized way of dealing with historical processes.” Instead, Hoffmann arrives at his “three C’s” matrix to determine plausibility for a historical, individual actor. (I may be off base here, but then so are you.)

      The thing is, even without Hoffmann’s erudition and intellectual histories and hermeneutical constructs and what not,  plausibility is instinctive. That is the problem with Doherty’s “Jesus Puzzle,” for example; it very quickly became far-fetched. So when Vinny noted above that Hoffmann “doesn’t seem to be trying to put much weight on Paul,” the principle that McGrath mentions obtains no matter whether it’s Paul or some other source: what is the parsimonious explanation for “James, the brother of Jesus”? (I don’t read Greek, so I demur.) Is it that Paul is actually referring to James, the brother of Jesus, or must it be some <other James, because, after all, there were so many Jameses, and there were so many reasons to address a man as “brother”? Or maybe it’s an interpolation!

      • Claude

        I repent of my sins of HTML.

  • steven

    HOFFMAN
     His description fits the historical matrix from which it comes

    CARR
    This is so true, that there actually is an apocalyptic preacher called Jesus in Josephus who was killed for his troubles.

    Of course, Josephus puts this first-century apocalyptic preacher called Jesus after the Gospels do.

    Perhaps Josephus was misinformed about the dates of this guy. Or perhaps there were two first-century apocalyptic preachers called Jesus.

    In any case, Hoffman’s claim that it is plausible that there was a first-century apocalyptic preacher called Jesus is understating the case.

    We know first century apocalyptic preachers called Jesus really did exist.

  • steven

    Just how plausible is it that there was a first-century Jew who thought there was an apocalypse coming soon, and who managed to recruit 12 people who he honestly thought were going to help him rule the world after the apocalypse?

    Really? Is that at at all plausible?

    • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

      Are you being sarcastic? Google the Heavens Gate group and tell me that first century apocalypticism is any less plausible than what those guys believed…

      • steven

        I haven’t mixed much with religious types in my life, let alone cults like Heaven’s gate.

        Is it really plausible that there was a first century preacher who appointed 12 disciples to help him rule and judge  the world after the forthcoming apocalypse?

  • Claude

    [No sooner had I posted above than I was reminded of something McGrath remarked in comments elsewhere:
    The question is whether, as with the Earth's rotation, the evidence indicates that it is our assumptions about what is absurd are keeping us from embracing an evidence-supported picture of how the world works.

    So...there's that. Still, I think one reason why Hoffmann's approach makes sense, to me, anyway, is that the instinct to assess plausibility, however unreliable, is so reflexive.]

  • Brettongarcia

    Of course there were countless apocalyptic prophets in the time of Jesus (and some today too).  However,  that really doesn’t prove the existence of specifically anything like a “Jesus”; since there were probably hundreds of thousands of them.  And worse, the closer you get to anything like a recognizable Jesus that c0uld in any sense be called the “historical source” of the myth … the more improbable it is, the less evidence there is.

    In fact, what did the “Historicist” Hoffmann himself conclude?  Here’s Dr. Hoffman summarized and quoted in the Wiki article on “Christ Myth,” the section on his Jesus Project:

    “Joseph Hoffmann of CSER was the project’s director. The project was temporarily halted in June 2009 when its funding was suspended, and shortly thereafter Hoffmann resigned, which effectively brought it to an end. He wrote that he no longer believed it was possible to answer the historicity question, because of the extent to which history, myth, and religious belief are intertwined. He argues that the New Testament documents were written at a time when the line between natural and supernatural was not clearly drawn. He concludes: “No quantum of material discovered since 1940s, in the absence of canonical material, would support the existence of an historical founder. No material regarded as canonical and no church doctrine built upon it in the history of the church would cause us to deny it. Whether the New Testament runs from Christ to Jesus or Jesus to Christ is not a question we can answer.”[271]”

    Here Hoffmann’s language is a bit equivocal.  But it’s clear that he is denying that there is enough objective historical evidence to declare Jesus “historical.”  And he seems open to the possibility that the Christ myth, preceeded the “historical” “Jesus.”  To be sure, he is open to the opposite too.  But in either case, he says there just isn’t enough evidence – for either.

    So?  Hoffmann is not an Historicist.  As of this writing. 

    And his conclusion is quite right:  there just isn’t enough historical evidence for an Historical Jesus.

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

      I would strongly commend reading Hoffmann himself, in detail, and not just a Wiki with quotes from him, before characterizing his stance one way or the other. It is carefully nuanced and supported by a wealth of argument, evidence, and insight.

    • Claude

      Brettongarcia:

      The quote from the wiki is from the source I mentioned before, Hoffmann’s “Threnody: Rethinking the Thinking Behind the Jesus Project”:

      http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/hoffman1044.shtml

  • Brettongarcia

    I’ve been dialoguing with Hoffmann on his blog for about 6 months or so.  And to be sure, his language is quite nuanced/equivocal.  The high style in the Bible and in theology is Ambiguity; it is all too useful, in that you can never be pinned down to any one thing.   
     
    Still, Hoffmann at times declares himself to be an atheist; he is committed to “Plausibility” so far and not to Historicism.  While the direct quote from him above seems fairly clear.  As clear as Hoffmann gets.
     
    Based on all that, I decided to stick my neck out a tiny bit here.  If anyone has a good direct quote proving Hoffmann IS an Historicist, feel free to present it here.
     
    Granted his remarks are quite nuanced/equivocal.  But that does not necessarily speak in his favor.  Equivocation is not always admired by everyone.  Jesus himself said he would speak “plain”ly one day.

  • Claude

    If anyone has a good direct quote proving Hoffmann IS an Historicist, feel free to present it here.

    In my last brief post I offered a few reasons why I think Jesus was an historical figure.

    R. Joseph Hoffmann, “The Historically Inconvenient Jesus”http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/the-historically-inconvenient-jesus/Hoffmann may describe an impasse that no post-40s finds support, and no canonical texts deny, a historical Jesus, and he may say he is “relatively uninterested in the question of his existence,” but nonetheless presumably Hoffmann thinks Jesus existed when he says “I think Jesus was an historical figure.”Again, plausibility is the rationale for the historical project. If Hoffmann did not find a historical Jesus plausible then game over.

    • Claude

      OK, the demon Disqus ate my link and even a few words of my post, and ignores my hard returns. I will try this again:

      R. Joseph Hoffmann, “The Historically Inconvenient Jesus”

      http://tinyurl.com/a7sjyse

      • Claude

        Apologies, I’m not registered with Disqus and so can’t edit posts (I’ll quit posting links in future). The truncated sentence, which refers to Brettongarcia’s Hoffmann quote, should read:

        Hoffmann may describe an impasse that no post-40s finds support, and no canonical texts deny, a historical Jesus, etc.

  • guest

    I’ll be honest, I found the article difficult to understand because the language was very dense and there were references to philosopher’s whose work I’m not familiar with.

    Having said that, his main point seems to be that it’s more likely that the first people writing about Jesus were exagerrating the qualties of and building stories around a real man, rather than making things up wholesale.  I think that makes sense. It’s easy to see how stories might grow around a preacher who was popular in his own lifetime. It’s harder to see why people who didn’t know each other very well would all make up the same Messiah figure. Some of the early explanations of the crucifixtion seem like the kind of rationalisations people might make up after a traumatic event as well.

    Even so, I think most of the stories around Jesus were made up. All the miracles, for example. And that doesn’t leave much.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

      ‘Having said that, his main point seems to be that it’s more likely that the first people writing about Jesus were exagerrating the qualties of and building stories around a real man, rather than making things up wholesale.’

      The first people writing about Jesus were Paul, who has Jesus speak to him about Satan, and the author of Hebrews who has Jesus speaking in Scripture.

      Where does Paul exaggerate the qualities of Jesus? When he declares how the founder of the cult told his followers how to summon up his body and blood, so that they could symbolically eat it?

      Hoffman might howl that it is totally plausible that Jews would decide to symbolically eat the flesh and symbolically drink the blood of a recently executed criminal.

      The rest of us might wonder if he had ever met any Jews.

  • Brettongarcia

    The language of religion, and Hoffmann’s language, is difficult; and many ideas are considered at once. But sometimes even those who appear very sophisticated made simple mistakes. On the face of it, supporting the reality or historicity of a figure whose legend consists in high proportion, in working giant physical miracles, appears to be such a mistake.

    To try to get around the obvious problems with supporting a character said to have walked on water, and so forth, again and again, recent historicists and others have come up with the notion of an “historical Jesus.” They believe that by subtracting the miracles, and some other im-”plausible” features, we might still arrive at a “Plausible” Jesus we can still believe in. However, there are problems in turn with the new Plausiblity Criterion for the Authenticity of Jesus. Generally I’m a great fan of Plausibility and probability. But this new method, like the old ones (the
    Criterion of Embarrassment, etc.), has some extremely serious
    pitfalls.

    To illustrate the problems with ALL the allgedly “historical”
    Criteria in Historical Jesus studies, I like to consider what the
    results of their application, to a known mythical figure: especially
    say, Mickey Mouse.

    What happens when you apply the “Plausibility” Criterion to Mickey Mouse? Consider: we know that a mouse that walks on its hind legs, talks, survives
    explosions, and so forth, is too miraculous, and is not plausible. So?
    Without more information on things, and going strictly with
    plausibility, we must suppose it seems, that the “real Mickey” must
    have been a rather normal mouse. Probably one seen by Walt Disney
    when he was living in a poor apartment, in his early days before he
    was famous. This Mickey would have lived therefore, say (guessing)
    in roughly the second decade of he 20th century; possibly on the West
    Coast, where Walt eventually lived (or wherever).

    And since such mice are extremely common, and plausible? We therefore can no
    doubt say that we have discovered the most likely, Real Historical
    Mickey.

    Applying the new Criterion of Plausibility therefore, “proves” or assigns “plausibility” to M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!

    This of course is a very brief sketch; and many more details would be needed to make it very firm. However? This would give you an idea of some of the very, very serious pitfalls, in this – as in all – the HJ “Criteria.” The problem is that when applied to obviously and indisputably mythical/fictional characters, it still ends up verifying their allegedly probable and often, “historical existence.”

    And so there you have it: the real, Historical Mickey Mouse. Or Historical Jesus.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

      Are you claiming Hoffman is going in for the Popeye defense?

      Is it really plausible that there was a sailor who was good with his fists and often got into fights over a girl?

      Could Popeye be based on a real, historical person?

      Mythicists laugh at the idea of Popeye existing, demonstrating once again that they just don’t understand the criterion of plausibility.

      All that can be done is to smile condescendingly at the mythicist naivety, and rub their noses in the fact that Popeye was based on a real, historical person.

      • Claude

        Legend has it that Popeye was based on Frank “Rocky” Fiegel of Chester, Illinois, a street-fighting, pipe-smoking tough and well-known local character.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

          But try telling that to denialists who say Popeye never existed!

          • Claude

            I won’t post at Vridar any more because of censorship. Why, Neal even deleted a post of mine where I urged you not to be coy!

    • Claude

      So you concede that Hoffmann is arguing for the historicity of Jesus when he says “I think Jesus was an historical figure.” Progress.


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