Myth of the Gaps

Mythicism doesn’t account for gaps in what Paul writes better than mainstream scholarship does.

It just fills those gaps with something different, something which is at odds with what Paul does explicitly say in places.

People who did not previously know about a historical Jesus would be left with  questions after reading one of Paul’s letters. And people who did not previously know about a celestial Jesus would be left with the same kinds of questions after reading one of Paul’s letters.

People want information about other people. And when they believe in gods and celestial beings, they want information about those too.

And so the claim that somehow mythicism makes better sense of the gaps in Paul’s letters is not just bogus, but completely bogus.

And that anyone finds the claim persuasive, suggests to me that they have not given sufficient thought to the matter.

A good biography cannot include every detail, but it must provide enough. And a good myth may not include every detail, but it must provide enough.

And so surely the best explanation for the lack of historical and/or mythicial details in Paul’s letters must be the genre, and not the fact that he thought of Jesus in historical terms, mythical terms, or both.

And while one can certainly read mythicism into the gaps in Paul’s letters, there is nothing in those letters that requires one to do that, and some things Paul says make it much harder to do that. It is most straightforward to fill in missing information that fits with Jesus having been a Jewish person believed to be the messiah who was crucified, as Paul explicitly states, not to mention that this fits with the slightly later Gospels and all other relevant sources as well.

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  • Jonathan Bernier

    Interesting fact: in a mythicist world, Jesus wasn’t Jewish. Just saying.

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

      Why?

      • Neko

        How does ethnic nationalism work exactly in the celestial realm?

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Doesn’t need much explanation. A non-entity cannot have a predicate. If Jesus is a non-entity then Jesus cannot have a predicate. Jewish-ness is a predicate. Therefore if Jesus is a non-entity Jesus cannot be Jewish.

          • Neko

            Sir, I was being sarcastic.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Note that I was responding to Enopoletus Harding. It was by error that I clicked on your name.

    • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

      Of course. Godwin’s Law. All mythicists are by definition raving anti-semites. James has already dropped the innuendo in this direction towards Carrier. The Prayer of Joseph and Assumption of Moses with their celestial Jacob and heavenly Moses were obviously written by a self-hating Jews, too. And now that Jesus is no longer in the flesh but in heaven as a spirit it is obvious he also despised his Jewishness enough to have it killed and buried so he could live free forever.

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    Good post, James.

  • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

    What is one example of where Price, Carrier, Brodie, Doherty, Thompson or other mythicist attempts to explain a gap or silence in Paul with a “mythical Jesus”? Sorry but I can’t think of a single instance of such an argument but since everyone here seems to know it’s an obvious fact someone here must be able to tell me one example. Just one will do.

    • Neko

      If the early Christian record presents us with such a picture, such a compelling and inexplicable void on the Gospel Jesus, how likely is the possibility that such a man as the Gospels tell of, even reduced to human fundamentals, could really have lived?

      Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, p. 24.

      • Mark Erickson

        Why do you think this example fits the bill? Because it uses the word “void”?

        • Neko

          That does not merit a response.

      • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

        This raises the question. You are confusing a preamble with the argument. I suppose I can forgive you though because most HJ arguments are nothing more than rhetorical questions so it is easy to understand why such people assume that any rhetorical question is actually itself an argument.

        If Doherty left it at that you would establish your point — just as HJ’ers generally leave rhetorical questions to make their points without further elaboration. But Doherty actually writes many pages of argument referencing specific passages to establish his case.

        • Neko

          Well, exactly. In which he “attempts to explain a gap or silence in Paul with a ‘mythical Jesus.'” That he does so in consideration of specific passages makes it no less an attempt to explain silence.

          • Mark Erickson

            Neil is being too kind and my comment above was a serious, although snarky, question. The quote could not establish the point, regardless of what Doherty went on to write. His question is this: given the absence of Gospel material in the epistles (the earlier source), could the historical details of the Gospels (the later source) be true?

            Neil is asking for an example of a Jesus Mythicists taking a silence in the epistles, such as Jesus’ birth, and inserting a mythical narrative such as Superman’s arrival on Earth. Note that the opposite, filling the silences with purported historical material is so common it has a phrase, “reading the Gospels into the epistles.”

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

            I think you and/or Neil may have misunderstood what I wrote, or perhaps are deliberately trying to avoid the force of the point.

            On the one hand, when one adds “in the sub-lunar realm, just above the firmament” where the relevant texts say nothing of the sort, one is indeed inserting myth not merely into the gaps, but in practice into the text, at least as you are interpreting it.

            On the other hand, the point in this post is that mythicist talk of “gaps” is ignoring that ancient readers of Paul’s letters would have had much the same questions about the mythical Jesus as about the historical. It is not as though, by saying that Jesus was not crucified just outside Jerusalem for Paul, an ancient reader of his letters would then have been satisfied, even though he never tells them that he was crucified on the firmament, nor any other details that an ancient person would expect from their myth. Their are the same gaps in the myth Paul shares as in the history Paul shares, depending on one’s view of what was in those gaps. And so claiming that the gaps in what Paul says fit mythicism but not historicism isn’t merely misleading, it is just plain false.

          • Mark Erickson

            I see your point, but the sub-lunar realm, firmament, archons, etc. were all existing cosmology when Paul wrote his epistles. See Neil’s post responding to you on this subject. Are you saying Paul didn’t use gnostic terms in a gnostic context? It was a high-context society, right?

            “the same questions about the mythical Jesus as about the historical” What does that mean? Did some readers consider Jesus historical and had some questions and others thought he was mythical and had others? Each addressing perceived gaps in the material according to their perspective.

            “an ancient person would expect from their myth” How do you know what those expectations would be and that only the information in the extant epistles addressed them?

            “Their are the same gaps in the myth Paul shares as in the history Paul shares, depending on one’s view of what was in those gaps.” Huh? Word salad to me.

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

            Paul’s identification of the one God as the Creator rules out the possibility that he was a Gnostic. What I think is that it is unlikely that Paul assumed the idiosyncratic cosmology of the Ascension of Isaiah, the Christian version of which did not yet exist in his time.

            I don’t think Paul said everything he knew in his letters. Are you saying that you as a mythicist are beginning to understand why? If so, then this post has helped achieve some real progress.

          • Mark Erickson

            So you decide the precise definition of gnostic, who is one, what they can and cannot believe, and how the terminology has to be used? And all of these for the 1st century CE? Wow.

            It doesn’t matter how “idiosyncratic” the cosmology was, Paul could have been using it. The date of the extant “Christian” version of the Ascension isn’t dispositive. Considering Hebrews and other non-canonical texts, it is clear these concepts were present and fluid in Paul’s time. Why do you think he wasn’t using them? What in Paul’s writings rules it out?

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

            It isn’t at all clear from other works that the distinctive cosmology of the Ascension of Isaiah was extant in Paul’s time, and I am sure you are aware that without that specific cosmology, the attempt to situate Jesus’ flesh in the non-terrestrial realm falls apart. So by all means make the case that that cosmology existed. But don’t pretend it is self-evident.

            I trust you are aware that the appropriateness of the term Gnostic is itself debated in contemporary scholarship. But to the extent that it is appropriate, if it is appropriate, it does indeed refer to a particular religious viewpoint. If you are using it in some other way, then don’t you think it would be appropriate to explain that, and interact with the relevant scholarship to explain why you are using the term differently?

            Any attempt to try to interact with the scholarship would reflect positively on you. Whereas seeming to be unaware of it or confused about it, and then responding to someone who is approaching this in light of that scholarship by saying “wow,” does not.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Very few is the contemporary scholar who would want to talk about gnosticism in the first century.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            The more idiosyncratic one makes Paul’s cosmology the less one can draw upon parallels from other writers.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            The problem you have here is that you are using later texts as the background for earlier ones. This seems a bit questionable, and presupposes that Gnosticism is less a historical movement located in time and space but rather a timeless ethereal set of Platonic forms existing in some unspecified metaphysical realm: a sort of mythicizing of the very idea of ideas. It seems to make much more sense that when we see echoes of Pauline language in Gnostic Christian texts that its because Gnostic Christians are reading Pauline literature. In fact, my own thinking is that this thing we call Gnosticism is not a timeless ahistorical phenomenon but rather the product of a very precise second-century project, namely the first efforts at developing Christian systematic theologies. Yet most pioneering efforts the first attempts would be judged to be inadequate by later writers. So they’ve got the Pauline (and other NT) texts on one lap, Plato on the other, and they’re doing what they can to make it all fit together. Such a historical narrative seems to make much better sense of the chronological facts as well as the physical reality of history.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            And it turns out that the real, historical, world existed when Paul wrote. If he could be referring to a cosmology that purportedly existed at that time then why not the historical world which presumably did as well.

            Yet did that cosmology exist? You ask: “Are you saying Paul didn’t use gnostic terms in a gnostic context?” I ask: What Gnostic context? What evidence is there that the Christian Gnosticism that we know of from later centuries even existed in the first century? Spoiler alert: very little. Actually, the only way you’ll be able to really make it work is by reading Paul as just such a Gnostic, but then you’re just begging the question.

            Your argument would be much more persuasive if the last sixty years of Gnostic studies hadn’t happened.

          • Mark Erickson

            Why are you requiring what Paul wrote to fit into Christian Gnosticism from later centuries? That’s asinine. Perhaps I am guilty of using small ‘g’ gnosticism too loosely or even incorrectly, but throwing aside labels, it is clear what concepts in the texts I’m talking about.

          • MattB

            Right, I mean, what else would a first century Jew mean when he says that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised? He’s certainly not talking about a celestial realm here. Even Paul himself is trying to make sense of the crucifixion in mundane terms. 1 Cor. 1:23 is just a great example of this. If Jesus’ crucifixion, for example, is taking place in a celestial realm, then why is it such a stumbling block to both Jew and Gentile? Certainly Jews and Gentiles would have laughed at early Christians or made a mockery of them because their leader was executed by the Roman state on the charge of treason.

          • Neko

            (Are you trying to bait me over Galatians 4:4 or something? In The Jesus Puzzle Doherty broadly dismisses the notion of Jesus being “born of a woman” as a scriptural import by early Christian writers and in particular as an allegorical allusion by Paul. But I was amused to read Doherty’s assurance that “Even some pagan savior gods could be said to possess an ethnic lineage.” Take that, Jonathan Bernier!)

            Maybe the view from down in the weeds is that no mythicist could ever be so unconscionable as to fill silence with noise, but from where I’m sitting not only is that funny but a strange fight to pick.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I have no idea what I’m supposed to taking, or why.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Oh, I get it now. You’re referring back to my obviously somewhat playful statement about the mythicist Jesus not being Jewish. It’s obviously playful because it plays fast and loose with language. If Jesus is not then actually he can’t be either Jewish or not-Jewish. In fact, to even speak of him not being something would be absurd. Arguing over whether a non-human Jesus is Jewish is kinda like arguing over whether real Klingons have bumpy or smooth foreheards. But that the last point brings me to the fact that your triumphal fist-pump just tells me how little you know about ancient Judaism, which had no idea that a non-human entity could be Jewish. Angels are not understood to be Jewish, God is not understood to be Jewish. Humanness was a necessary condition for Jewishness. To be Jewish was to be part of the chosen people here on Earth, not some being existing only in the firmament.

          • Neko

            Again, Mr. Bernier, when I said “Take that!” I was being facetious. There was no triumphal fist-pump. For God’s sake I agree with you.

            It’s true I know little about ancient Judaism, but I do know enough to chortle over the suggestion that God, archangels, seraphim, and the rest of the heavenly host were thought to be Jewish.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Fair enough, and apologies over misreading your statement. It is difficult with all the silliness written on this subject online to detect what is said facetiously and what is said seriously.

            Also, not to be an arse, but it’s Dr. Bernier. Sorry, but put in a lot of work to earn the title, so I sort of insist upon it…

          • Neko

            No problem.

            It’s obvious you’re a scholar so apologies for my oversight. Rock on, Dr.

          • Mark Erickson

            Your work apparently didn’t include learning how to spell “non sequitur“.

            You don’t have to respond to my comments on your blog, but I would appreciate it if you published them. I put work into writing them, you know.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Certainly any argument from silence would seem to be doing just this. The argument is that since Paul doesn’t tell us much about Jesus and what he does tell need not explicitly refer to a historical figure, thus can we infer that he refers to a non-historical figure. It would at the very least be a myth of the silences, and that seems not far off from a myth of the gaps.

      • Kris Rhodes

        Well arguably mythicists aren’t arguing from silence (though I know it’s often framed as though they were, by both sides) but instead are arguing that Paul explicitly refers to a person who did what he did in some place not on Earth. They don’t explain gaps by referring to a mythical Jesus, but rather at most use gaps to emphasize uncertainties in the traditional picture.

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

          Where does Paul explicitly say that Jesus was born of a woman, born under the law, crucified, and buried somewhere other than Earth?

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Apparently Paul also thought that this man who never lived as a human was nonetheless a son of David according to the flesh. We have Jesus being born of a woman, being a son of David according to the flesh, dying and being buried. Now, even if one *could* make this all happen in some heaven somewhere (and on that I’m dubious) one could hardly rule out that the “Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human being” hypothesis is also quite plausible. And interestingly not long after Paul is writing (at most two or three decades, and in terms of ancient writing that’s a heartbeat) four texts emerge that clearly present Jesus as a real human being. Even if they were equally legitimate exegetical options (and note, they ain’t) the one that introduces the fewest new problems should be preferred, and that would be the one that supposes continuity between Paul and the Gospels rather than the one that posits discontinuity–especially as I have yet to see a compelling narrative to account for the discontinuity.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Sure, not all mythicist arguments need be from silence. Yet insofar as they are then I think that we are dealing with some degree of gap-filling.

  • redpill99

    personally i cant wait to read ur review of Carrier’s latest book.