Responding to David Fitzgerald

David Fitzgerald kindly let me know that he has posted a response to my critical post about his talk at Skepticon. In the spirit of dialogue that he expresses in his post, addressing me directly, I will do the same here.

I would like to begin by clarifying that I was not in any sense criticizing you for highlighting scholarship for an audience unfamiliar with it. As you rightly point out, professors do this semester after semester, and if I thought doing so was pointless, I might have to abandon blogging as well as teaching! :-)  I did, however, feel that you were at once sharing a wealth of scholarly information, and simultaneously suggesting that scholars somehow were foolish enough not to see the conclusion to which these points obviously lead. The truth is that the scholars whom you mention – e.g. Brodie, MacDonald, Maclean – do not see their points about the Gospels being largely fictional as leading to the conclusion that there was no historical Jesus upon whom they were even loosely based – at least, not in anything I’ve read by them, and in what I have read by them, they assert or otherwise indicate the contrary. And for good reason. One of the most popular genres in this period, akin to the “novel”, was a form of historical fiction. It has often been suggested that the various Acts of apostles are in this genre, and they illustrate nicely that they are regularly based on a historical figure while being largely fictional.

If we take our earliest Acts, the Acts of the Apostles attributed to Luke, he clearly gets at least some things about Paul correct in his second volume, since they can be corroborated in Paul’s own letters. Is there really a good reason to think that the situation was entirely different when it comes to the first volume attributed to Luke?

You say that Seneca mentions Judaism. He seems to have done so on one occasion, if the quotation Augustine offers of a work that I do not believe is otherwise extant is anything to go by. But a more germane question for the present discussion would be: Does he mention Pharisees and Saducees? We are discussing the earliest period of Christian origins, during which Jesus and his first followers were a sect within Judaism. To expect them to be mentioned as though they were a separate world religion is anachronistic – an anachronism Augustine seems to be guilty of himself in the passage I linked to.

On the subject of Origen’s mention of Josephus, I think I have interpreted the evidence correctly. He criticizes Josephus for not blaming the calamaties that befell the Jews on their treatment of Jesus, not for never mentioning him. And Origen’s confident statement that Josephus was not a Christian seems to imply that Josephus’ stance on Jesus was clear, rather than that he simply failed to mention him.

If you wish to explain why you consider 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 a disavowal on Paul’s part that Jesus had performed miracles, please do so. It seems to me that you must be reading something into that passage that I simply do not see there.

But I think the most crucial point is that you seem not to grasp the overall difficulty of the mythicist claim. In essence, the claim is made that Paul proclaimed a non-earthly Jesus, and then within a few decades, several authors composed earthly lives of this figure, yet without anywhere indicating that they were introducing a radical change in the setting of the drama. If the next works we had chronologically came from the second or third century anti-Gnostic polemical writings of various Church Fathers, your case might seem at least somewhat plausible. But in fact, what we meet next are anti-docetic writings like those of Ignatius, which do not argue against the view that Jesus existed only in heaven, but that his earthly existence was not capable of suffering and did not involve his being crucified. The stance of the Docetists is at once markedly different from earlier Christian literature (striving to deny or explain away the crucifixion that all earlier sources take for granted), and explicable in terms of the fitting of Jesus into the Greco-Roman concept of divinity. And so whereas the consensus understanding of historians and scholars makes good sense of the trajectories and evolution of the various strands of the Christian tradition, the mythicist view has Paul proclaim a purely mythical Jesus (who nevertheless was born under the Torah, “has become a servant of the circumcision” (Romans 15:8) and was crucified), then has Gospels written which turn him into an earthly figure without apparent controversy, and then later sources turn him into a purely spiritual one again (albeit even there with room for an earthly sojourn). This ordering and interpretation of the material seems to have nothing going for it, nothing whatsoever to make it seem preferable to the consensus view.

I have said in previous interactions with mythicists that the issue is not whether any several pieces of evidence can just perhaps be understood in the way that is being suggested. The question a historian must ask is whether the interpretations are the most probable, and make the best sense of the evidence, and fit together with other information that we have. To make a serious case for mythicism, it is not enough to show that the texts in Paul’s authentic letters that seem to view Jesus as a human figure in history are capable of being interpreted in a manner that is compatible with mythicism, if enough effort and special pleading is introduced. Can you show that they are best understood in this way? If not, then are you not in fact doing with historians and Biblical scholars what creationists do with science – namely taking snippets of legitimate scholarship, and piecing them together into a whole that no one working in the field would find remotely plausible? And if so, then the question that has to be asked next is why you choose to do so. Why dive into a field that is not your area of expertise and try to make a case to a popular audience that disagrees with the experts in that field? Is this something that you would be happy to see done across the board in all areas of scholarly expertise? If not, why single this one out, and what might the implications be of doing so?

Let me end by saying that you do indeed touch on a lot of points that are simply mainstream scholarship, and I am glad that you are seeking to bring that sort of information to a wider audience. But as someone who also has dedicated a lot of time to arguing against creationists, I can say that having individual details correct is not ultimately enough. It is possible to deal correctly and honestly with many details, and yet nevertheless incorporate them into a misleading or unpersuasive theoretical framework. I remain convinced that that is what you are doing with the matter of the historical figure of Jesus.

I can see how Paul’s references to Jesus’ birth, his hostile relations with Jesus’ relatives, and his failure to narrate the story of Jesus in detail may seem to cast reasonable doubt on whether the Jesus of whom he speaks was a historical figure. If that sort of agnosticism were your stance, I might not agree with it, but I would have far greater respect for it than I am able to for the mythicist one. Mythicism does not merely claim uncertainty about historicity, but tries to make a positive case for the invention of a Messiah crucified in a celestial space, and his rapid transformation into a historical figure who walked the earth. I humbly suggest that, just as there are reasons why biologists fit their individual pieces of data into the framework of mainstream evolutionary biology, there is a reason why historians regard the more probable scenario for Christian origins to involve a historical figure of Jesus. And to the extent that you seem to be a proponent of the kind of skepticism that embraces the mainstream skeptical stance adopted by experts in the natural sciences and in history, and not the pseudoskeptical stance of the antivaccination crowd, intelligent design, and conspiracy theories, then I plead with you to make greater efforts to understand why most historians, whether they are atheists, Jews, Christians, or nothing in particular, all seem to find the historians’ and scholars’ consensus persuasive, and mythicism not.

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  • David Fitzgerald

    Dr. McGrath, thanks again for your thoughtful response. I knew anybody who whomps on creationists and likes all the same movies I do couldn't be all bad! I've just posted a follow-up post. Thanks again.All the best,-Dave Fitzgerald

  • Michael

    Nice and thank you :)