Neil Godfrey has posted a “response” from Earl Doherty that nicely illustrates, as usual, why mythicism is not taken seriously by most people, but more importantly pretty much anyone with actual expertise in history and a genuine interest in applying historical methods to learn about the past.
The post is in fact intended to provide an “antidote” some brief responses to mythicist claims that I offered in a post a while back. My own view is that it fails miserably, but I am not exactly an impartial observer. But since brief responses are only persuasive if one is familiar with the wealth of evidence behind them, presumably it may be useful for me to say a little more. Rather than trying to say something about each of Doherty’s points, let me focus on one in this post: how he, as a mythicist, treats the references by Paul to “James the brother of the Lord.”
In my post, I emphasized the importance of context. I perhaps should also have mentioned the importance of attention to detail. The suggestion that mythicists sometimes offer – that Paul’s reference to James as “brother of the Lord” uses “brother” in a non-literal sense – is not inherently implausible. The Synoptic Gospels, and Matthew’s Gospel in particular, offer lots of statements attributed to Jesus which make a wide array of people his “brothers.” Acts refers to Christians as “the brothers” on numerous occasions, and Paul in his letters does the same.
But that is precisely why most interpreters believe that Paul is using brother in a literal sense in Galatians 1:19. If all Christians were Jesus’ brothers, then singling out James using this phrase makes no sense. And if all Christians were Jesus’ brothers, then using the same term to denote a special category of leader makes no sense. And so we are left with one far more obvious option – one that is in fact encouraged by those same Gospels that also provide evidence of that wider usage: that James was the brother of Jesus in the most mundane and literal sense of those words.
Mythicists, like most critics of mainstream science and history, seem to think that if one can merely make a case that their interpretation is not impossible, then there is no reason to not adopt their conclusions rather than those of mainstream scholarship. And that was the point in my earlier post’s mention of “James the brother of the Lord” – the phrase could in theory mean any number of things. But actual attention to the evidence makes one meaning more likely than the others – and that even without considering the later history of who James was thought to be and how these references to him were understood.
It is precisely this sort of attention to detail and concern for plausibility and likelihood that mythicism lacks. And like Intelligent Design and other forms of pseudoscience, it makes appeals to the general public rather than trying to make a case in serious professional publications, showing that its claims and arguments can pass the first basic hurdle of peer review. It might still be found unpersuasive when subjected to the critical scrutiny of experts. But at least it would be clear that it is something that is felt to at least contribute to the academic conversation. Mythicism isn’t even there yet, and as with most pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical ideas, it doesn’t seem like its proponents are even trying yet.
Most of the post by Doherty is him saying that an “unbiased” observer would reach mythicist conclusions or at least take mythicism more seriously than is currently the case. What this illustrates is that mythicists are as prone to think that they are unbiased and their opponents are biased as everyone else is. We all like to think that it is simply bias that prevents others from seeing that we are right – and sometimes that is the case, and sometimes it is the reverse. That’s why we need mainstream historical scholarship, with the checks and balances provided to individual and group bias by the presence of scholars who are atheists or agnostics or represent a wide spectrum of different religious traditions, not to mention different institutional, national and local contexts. Many in the guild would love to be able to say something controversial enough to get a book deal with Harper Collins and supplement their meager educator’s income. Yet such experts consistently reach a different conclusion than mythicists even so. And the example of the “brother of the Lord” illustrates why. The division is not between the biased and the unbiased. The division is between those intimately familiar with the relevant methods and the relevant evidence and concerned to do justice to them, and those who are not.