Historical Jesus, Mythicism, and Miracles around the Blogosphere

Hemant Mehta explains his view on the historical Jesus, miracles, and what the implications are for atheism:

Interestingly, even Neil Godfrey agrees with Mehta on one point, that if you aren’t an expert in the field of historical Jesus studies, then it is better to be agnostic about it rather than hold firmly to a view you cannot defend. Of course, Godfrey is wrong about Ehrman’s book being the first tackling of mythicism in the field, just as he tends to be wrong about most things related to this topic.

And for the latest from an atheist scholar tackling the arguments of mythicists, Maurice Casey’s book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? is due out next year. Having read the manuscript in advance of publication, I can highly recommend it, as of interest not only to those interested in mythicism, but anyone interested in the historical figure of Jesus.

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  • http://markkoop.net Mark Koop

    I’m hoping for a video at some point entitled “A Conversation with Hemant Mehta and James McGrath.”

  • Herro

    Of course, Godfrey is wrong about Ehrman’s book being the first tackling of mythicism in the field, just as he tends to be wrong about most things related to this topic.

    Well, to be fair, Neil doesn’t say that Ehrman’s book is the first, this is what he says:

    Ehrman even says his own book is the first attempt in his entire field to do anything like that [“thrash out the question of Jesus’ historicity].

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

      And, to be fair, even if Ehrman – since he was tackling what is a popular and not a scholarly phenomenon – didn’t dig back into the history of scholarship on the subject and thus made an error, it still remains that, whoever the error originated with, Godfrey is wrong and it makes his stance that much weaker.

  • redpill99

    Maurice Casey’s book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?

    What does he offer that Ehrman’s book doesn’t? I do hope to see Ehrman Casey et al, on YT lecturing on this.

    What’s the status on Richard Carrier book?

    Other figures aren’t commented on. Is it reasonable to doubt the existence of biblical Moses Joshua David Solomon Joseph(s) the 12 apostles

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

      Casey’s book is aimed at providing a detailed scholarly treatment of mythicist claims and assertions, and not merely one aimed at a popular audience.

      Why would you run together so many figures from different time periods and for whom the evidence varies so much? Every allegedly historical person mentioned in a source needs to be assessed on their own terms on the basis of the evidence, and not simply lumped together with figures who are better or less well attested and then either dismissed or accepted as historical en masse. That isn’t how historical study works. Perhaps you should try reading books and not just trying to figure things out based on what is available on YouTube.

      • redpill99

        If you watch this video with Richard Dawkins, a very large British audience, rabbi priest and archaeology professor

        The Bible is mostly not factual – BBC debate

        Richard Dawkins and the entire audience wants to know about the historicity of the entire bible. Not only did Jesus exist but Moses David Solomon etc.

        Kinda sucks to be raised and told these people are real people and be so emotionally invested in the Jew-Christian religion only to discover most of these bible figures never even existed.

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

          Why turn to a biologist for your understanding of these subjects rather than secular historians?

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    To my mind, the best argument against mythicism is the implausibility of such a change having taken place within the early Church: Paul the pharisee believed that the Jesus he preached was a non-human spiritual being having never lived. And one generation after, most Christians believed that Jesus was a real man having truly lived in Palestine.

    I gave arguments about the specialness of Jesus here


    and they are also certainly valid against the mythical view.

    • $41348855

      What exactly do mythicists believe about the original conception of Jesus? A purely spiritual being obviously can’t die on the cross, so, presumably, the argument must be that Jesus was a mythological character. But if Jesus was a mythological character then the favourite argument of mythicists is fatally undermined.

      Much is made of Paul’s failure to mention biographical details about Jesus, but this would be no less surprising on the assumption of mythicism. Suppose Paul was writing to people who believed in Hercules. It would be strange if Paul said nothing about the life of Hercules. You would expect Paul to write about the labours of Hercules, for example.

      • Andrew Dowling

        On an atheist blog of all places, a moderator remarked that if Paul invented Jesus, where the heck did the Galilean peasant churning out incredibly bizarre and unique aphorisms, parables, and sayings come from? To say the latter came from the former instead of the other way around strains rational thought and deduction to its breaking point.

        • $41348855

          One possible objection to the point I made is that when Paul was writing there hadn’t been enough time to work out the details of the myth. But this would open a real can of worms for the mythicists.

          If Jesus existed then the belief in the resurrection goes back no more than about twenty years before Paul was writing. If Jesus didn’t exist there is no such restriction. The myth could go back much further. In fact, if the myth didn’t go back much further that would be a strong argument against the mythicist case. Why did the myth, which has no basis in fact, spring up suddenly twenty years before?

          Also, wouldn’t the details of a myth have to be worked out before the myth could spread? And if the details hadn’t been worked out that itself would be a talking point. Paul would have to explain why there were no details.

  • John Walker

    James, I wonder if Mehta would consider anything as “evidence” for miracles or the resurrection. Naturalist presuppositions would a priori eliminate any evidences as evidence.

    • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

      What sort of “evidence” did you have in mind?

      • John Walker

        Well, that’s my question. What evidence, of which Mehta says is lacking, would actually count as evidence for the miraculous?

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

          If we are talking about history, then there really isn’t a historical way to make a case for miracles. History evaluates probabilities, and since miracles are by definition improbable, a historian as historian can scarcely say “this incredibly improbable event is what most likely occurred.” Note that this is different from the issue of all events being improbable in relation to all other things that could have happened. That the wind should blow in a favorable direction for a naval fleet may be unlikely, but it does happen sometimes, and so all it takes to make a case that it most likely occurred is relevant evidence.

          • John Walker

            So essentially you follow Troeltsch and Hume’s line of thought? My follow up question then regards not verifiability, but rationality. Would you consider it reasonable, under any circumstances, to believe in a miraculous occurrence? (Not trying to be polemic, I’m honestly interested)

          • Nick Gotts

            As an atheist and metaphysical naturalist, I’ll give my own answer. If a sufficiently well-evidenced and well-attested case occurred of an amputee regrowing a limb over a period of seconds, I would consider and admit that the most plausible explanation was that a supernatural event, a miracle – an event contrary to the nature of physical reality – had indeed occurred; and hence that I had been quite wrong about the nature of reality. Perhaps an even better example would be as follows: suppose Australia suddenly vanished, leaving no trace in the Pacific ocean, but leaving the memories and written records of it located in other places untouched. That would be an even stronger case, as fraud would seem to be absolutely impossible.

            Oddly enough, when giving this kind of response in the past, I have, as far as I recall invariably, found those religious believers who had raised the question unwilling to accept my answer. I concede that I can’t be absolutely certain how I would respond in such a case, but it seems peculiar that other people, who have no more than casual online contact with me, should think they know better than me. So, to return your honest interest, what is your response to my answer?

            I might add that I agree with James McGrath that current historical methodology does not allow historians to conclude that “a miracle took place” (contra N.T. Wright), because that methodology involves discarding any reported occurrence that does not comport with our understanding of how the world generally works. This is not limited to excluding reported miracles, but extends to supposedly mundane events that could not have happened as reported. The example I generally give is Herodotus’s claim that the invasion force sent to Greece by Xerxes numbered 5 million: there is considered to be no way such a force could have been assembled and supplied, given the available technology of the time. However, sufficiently powerful evidence could rationally compel us to conclude that this methodology had failed us. None of the evidence for the miracles claimed by any religion comes remotely near to doing that.

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

            I think that, in the case of ancient texts, there will always be reasonable doubt. Paul mentions 500 seeing the risen Jesus at once, but we don’t know where he got that information from, or what they believed they saw assuming the information he received was in any way correct. You do not have to be particularly skeptical to realize that texts really cannot demonstrate a supernatural occurrence.

            If something happened in our time, we would have other lines of investigation open to us. But most would still be skeptical of a claim that a woman conceived without any sort of sexual intercourse, even if she passed a lie detector test. And if an earthquake occurred just as an army was attacking an enemy, we might have no doubt that it occurred, however astonishing. But that still would not enable us to demonstrate a theological claim that it was a result of divine action. The latter is because we, unlike most ancient people, have in our worldview the possibility that an earthquake might not be a miracle, something few if any in the distant past could conceive of.

          • John Walker

            So it seems it is a matter of metaphysical commitments. Because we are a society that has adopted metaphysical naturalism as the governing worldview for scientific/historical study, miraculous events are not open to those fields.

            Would you agree with folks like Le Donne who speak of how a “miraculous” event was perceived, rather than the miraculous event itself?

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

            Evidence is an effect from which we infer a cause. If we find a body with a knife in its back and the knife has little swirly patterns on the handle, we infer that the person whose fingerprints match those patterns is the person who put the knife there. We can do this because we understand the natural processes of cause and effect that cause those little swirly patterns to appear on objects and we believe that those natural processes are overwhelmingly consistent, if not invariable. If we thought that those little swirly patterns appeared randomly or by divine fiat, they wouldn’t be evidence of anything. We could not say it was Professor Plum with the knife in the library.

            The intellectual tools by which we draw inferences from evidence use the consistency of natural processes of cause and effect. As a result, they can not identify supernatural causes regardless of whether our world view allows for them. We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.

          • John Walker

            I actually have very few quibbles with what you said. I do not have the same metaphysical presuppositions as you, so I approach the issue from a different angle. I am certainly open to supernatural events. However, I would not presume to be able to transform your worldview through historical research.

            I would say, though, that for example, in the case of historical Jesus research, responsible historians will include the fact that Jesus contemporaries perceived him as a miracle worker/exorcist. They need not speak to the event itself, only the perception. “Jesus contemporaries interpreted his actions as supernatural occurrences.” That seems to avoid metaphysical statements, while also taking seriously the evidence.

            And I am not selective in this. If evidence supports that other ancients were perceived as miracle workers, like Honi or Apollonius, I have no problem.

            With all that said, with my metaphysical commitments, I have no problem affirming miraculous events. Thus, when the gospel writers interpret Jesus events as supernatural, I agree with their interpretations.

          • arcseconds

            Presumably you do this with contemporary accounts, too?

            You are aware that some of these accounts have been shown to be fraudulent, right?

          • John Walker

            Sure. Fraudulent accounts do nothing to discredit authentic accounts.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            and how do you determine which are “authentic”?

          • John Walker

            You know, it depends. I’d say first, the effect that has been claimed must be established. If someone is proposed to have a broken bone healed, first, it would have to be established that the bone is in fact not broken. Then, the prior circumstance would need to be established (ie: the broken bone). All these could be done through basic witness testimony and, in this case, medical documentation, or any other relevant material. Lastly, this one is the kicker and the area of controversy, the supernatural nature of the cause would need to be established.

            Remember, I am coming at this with metaphysical commitments. Miracles will not alter those commitments, rather, they will be interpreted through them. A Naturalist will not be convinced by a supernatural event, because they can simply resort to agnosticism, that posits some Natural explanation to be found in the future. However, as a thinker sympathetic to a supernatural world, and thus, supernatural causes, I have no problem inferring those into a causal chain.

            So if it seems that any Naturalist explanation is lacking, and what we do know of nature is contrary to the particular occurrence, then I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume a miracle has occurred.

            Now, I think we ought to remain critical. We don’t believe all claims, just as we don’t believe all claims of natural events. I am definitely more skeptical in the case of supernatural events, I am no easy believer, however, I would still maintain that it can be reasonable to understand an event as miraculous.

            Great question, Beau!

          • arcseconds

            Are there any examples of recent miracles that meet your criteria for evidence?

            For that matter, it seems to me that few, if any, older examples of miracles are going to meet your criteria here. The miracles in the bible, for example, aren’t accompanied by medical documentation recorded by a trained professional, and, at best, seem to be recorded several years after the fact by people who weren’t there.

          • John Walker

            I was referring specifically to contemporary accounts. That kind of evidence will not be provided by ancient texts.

          • arcseconds

            So you have different levels of proof for ancient miracles?

          • John Walker

            Well, I’d most likely just speak of perception. If the evidence suggests that a subject’s contemporaries, en masse, perceived him as enacting miracles that suggest no natural cause, then I have no problem affirming miracles.

            I’m flying by the seat of my pants here. I’m not much of a historiographer.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            If you are speaking of Jesus’s miracles, the evidence of contemporaries, en masse, perceiving miracles is quite scant. The 4 gospels were written long after the events by men who did not witness them, using the same sources (verbatim passages), and yet still creating conflicting accounts.

            By this measure, we have far more assurance that hundreds of our own contemporaries have been kidnapped and probed by aliens.

            Having “metaphysical commitments” is a strange idea to me. How does one measure or determine “metaphysical commitments”? How does one know which “metaphysical commitments” to commit to? It honestly just sounds like shorthand for “I believe in magic”.

          • John Walker

            This’ll be my closing word, though, you are free to respond.

            The origin of the gospel traditions is complex, however, the oral tradition must be recognized. It certainly connects us to the perception of Jesus by his contemporaries. Graham Twelftree has shown convincingly the pervasive presence of Jesus as both an exorcist and a miracle worker in the early tradition. The “conflicting accounts” are only an issue if one reads the Bible with a fundamentalist perspective. When view through the lens of oral tradition discrepancies simply reflect different performance which would likely have gone unnoticed.

            Alien abductions are not analysis because they refer to many INDIVIDUAL testimonies.

            “Metaphysical commitments” is just another way of saying worldview. You have metaphysical commitments as well. Yours are presumably very different than mine. Mine stem from my Theism. They are not random or arbitrary. They are not completely fossilized either, rather, they transform and mutate through a two-way hermeneutic in which new experiences affect my worldview and are affected by it.

            And I certainly do think the world is a magical place.

            Great conversation here, I appreciate the engagement.

            John Walker | freedominorthodoxy.blogspot.com

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Thanks for the reply, John. There are a number of apologists who make arguments for the actual miracle-working of Jesus with only the gospels for evidence. There is no other evidence; only assumptions about oral traditions based on the gospels.

            The fact that alien abductions refer to many individual testimonies is exactly the point – apologists often refer to the testimony of indepent witnesses of Jesus – though the gospels are by no means independent (or even witnesses).

            It has become a rhetorical device for apologists to refer to everyone as having “faith” or “metaphysical commitments”. “Worldview” is not a synonym for “metaphysical commitments” because many worldviews do not require answers to all questions about the universe. I do not have metaphysical commitments, and neither do a great many individuals, however you may try to analyze their personal experience. There are many mysteries in the universe. I don’t presume to answer all mysteries with God or any current scientific theory. I do, however, reasonably think that “God” is too easy an answer to mystery.

          • Nick Gotts

            A Naturalist will not be convinced by a supernatural event, because they can simply resort to agnosticism, that posits some Natural explanation to be found in the future.

            Evidently, despite what you said above, you do not accept my assurance that there are types of evidence that would lead me to abandon naturalism. What evidence would convince you that others may be less dogmatically wedded to their beliefs than you?

          • Nick Gotts

            I don’t accept the terms “metaphysical presuppositions”, “metaphysical commitments” or “worldview”. All these imply, I think deliberately, that there can be no rational grounds for preferring one belief to another. I regard naturalism as a high-level hypothesis, which I maintain on the grounds that persistent attempts to falsify it have failed over the past two centuries. But I am willing to abandon if given good evidence that it is false, and I have given examples (by no means exhaustive) of the kind of evidence that would suffice.

            And I am not selective in this. If evidence supports that other ancients were perceived as miracle workers, like Honi or Apollonius, I have no problem.

            Do you mean you accept that they were miracle workers? Because if not, it’s not clear on what grounds you deny it, while affirming that Jesus was.

        • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

          “What evidence, of which Mehta says is lacking, would actually count as evidence for the miraculous?”

          You can certainly devise experimental research to test the efficacy of miraculous claims. Here’s a recent example:


  • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

    James, please re-read my post and write a retraction. I did not say Ehrman was the first to address the matter. I said Ehrman himself believed he was the first to seriously address the question of historicity in the way he did. He says that himself in his book. I have posted many times on Shirley Jackson Case and others, and I have criticized Ehrman for being so ignorant as to think his is the first attempt to address historicity.

    You link to Shirley Jackson Case’s book as if it rebuts my point yet I even addressed Case’s very book in one of the first comments on my post.

    When will you learn to read carefully and write responsibly about those with whom you disagree?
    Can you begin to understand why some people accuse you of being an outright liar?

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

      Perhaps readers will see from this why it is with great reluctance that I link to the blog Vridar. Neil Godfrey clearly made reference to Ehrman’s assertion. If he knew it was incorrect, then why cite it in this way? Was it to mislead through selective quotation from a scholar? Or conversely to use the classic creationist tactic of showing experts can be wrong, to then claim that nonsense that experts find not merely unpersuasive but laughable can justifiably be embraced? I had the impression that it was the former, but I will be the first to admit that, when reading a blog that is all about deliberate misrepresentation and spin, it is entirely possible that their attempt on this occasion was successful, so much so that I mistook precisely what sort of sneaky tactic I was encountering. Perhaps Godfrey or one of the other Vridar bloggers would like to clarify what the point of the citation of Ehrman was, rather than just offering the usual insults and accusations that they use to distract from their own sleight of hand tricks?

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

        Oh how delightful! Neil Godfrey has redacted his original post, and is now complaining about what I wrote about its original form! http://vridar.org/2013/10/26/comedian-tim-minchin-explains-mcgraths-problem-with-mythicism/

        • L.W. Dicker

          Good grief, man!!! You act like a 5 year old.

          Your history of misrepresenting others is well known to many.

          Richard Carrier recently linked to a series of exchanges with you that makes you look quite foolish.

          As Tom Verenna did some time ago.

          You’re becoming the Kirk Cameron of “progressive Christianity”, if there is such a thing.

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

            Funny, but this is not about apologetics for any sort of Christianity. It is about historical evidence and where it leads scholars and historians, whether they be atheists, Jews, Christians, or anything else.

        • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

          Another lie, James. Point to the evidence for your accusation that I “redacted” my original post. Your penchant for baseless accusation is too well-known by now.

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

            Godfrey did not “redact” his post. He added a comment. As far as I can tell, the original post stands as written.

            On the other hand, in his subsequent post criticizing McGrath for misreading the original post, Godfrey referred to the comment as if it somehow provided some context for his original post, which it didn’t because it wasn’t there when McGrath wrote his post.

            At this point, I think that both McGrath and Godfrey should reasonably expect that each and every sentence in their posts is going to nitpicked by the other one. I think they should also expect that their outrage is unlikely to be shared by all that many of the rest of us.

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

            I thought I was clear that I meant that the post was edited, through the addition of new material clarifying his point after I voiced my criticisms of its original form. I did not mean that he redacted the original wording of his statement. As far as I can tell, based on my own recollection, he did not do that.

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

            Since I feel that that I must defer to your understanding of the word “redact,” I can only say that the nature of your complaint was not clear to me.

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

            Then I apologize. I guess redaction has become too familiar a term to me because of my field, and there is no good reason for me to have used it. But since you replied using the synonym edit, you seemed to be disputing that Godfrey made any changes to his post after the fact, since editing can include addition and subtraction of material as well as modifying words already there and replacing them with new ones.

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

            I don’t recall using the word “edit” which would connote for me that the original wording was altered without leaving a record of the alteration. That was how I interpreted “redact.” I don’t think it would include adding a comment that clarifies the original wording without changing it. Nonetheless, subsequently referring to the comment as if it provided the initial context for post was certainly questionable.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        I don’t think Godfrey thought it was incorrect. Godfrey apparently makes a distinction between “thrash[ing] out the question of Jesus’ historicity” and “scholarly rebuttal”.

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

        I actually had the same impression when I first read that post, however, I have read Vridar enough to know that Neil doesn’t think that Ehrman is the first scholar to address mythicism. After a couple second’s thought, I understood that Neil was making a point about Ehrman thinking he was the first scholar to address mythicism. So while I can see how a stranger to these debates might get the wrong impression, I think anyone familiar with Neil’s blog could have figured out what he meant.

      • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

        James, if you have an ounce of integrity I challenge you to quote the relevant passage from Ehrman to which I was referring and explain how I at any point engaged in any misrepresentation whatever.

        You know very well that Ehrman believed he was the first to address the question of Jesus’ historicity and not to rely upon assumption. Are you saying Ehrman did not mean what he wrote? You know very well Ehrman was ignorant of the history of mythicism (or at least that that is what he said) and that he had never heard that anyone challenged Jesus’ historicity till a few people started asking him not so long ago about the question.

        My point was that this indicates how far scholars are from having engaged seriously with the question. They simply ignore it on the whole. Jesus’ historicity is an assumption and their arguments for his historicity are ad hoc rationalizations that often contradict other arguments they make when doing serious biblical scholarship, which they often do very well.

        It is because you are tired of my exposing the logical fallacies and contradictions among the Ehrmans and your good self that I think you despise me and impute all things Satanic into every thought and motivation of mine.

        By the way, where in the original video did the speaker say non-experts should defer to agnosticism, anyway?

  • L.W. Dicker

    James McGrath, you are an immature, ignorant, deluded Christtard.

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

      I think this comment is probably from someone just trying to make mythicists look bad. I can’t imagine that anyone would seriously accuse someone of immaturity in a comment that is immature. And so please stop trying to make mythicists look bad in this way. Historians and scholars are critical of them because of their poor arguments, and so we don’t need people pretending to be mythicists distracting from the substantive issues and trying to make this about something else.

  • Tom Verenna

    I wonder about Casey’s book; how polemical is it? Is it as baseless as his article against Thompson on B&I last year? ‘Cause that was just awful.

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

      When I saw it, it was quite sarcastic in tone in places, but offered really substantive criticisms with detailed discussion. I’m not sure whether the final version of the manuscript has less or perhaps even more snark! :-)