The Myth of a Mythical Jesus

To make Jesus a myth you have to invent the myth of a Jesus myth Dooley quote

I appreciated this way that Tim Dooley expressed a major problem with Jesus mythicism on Facebook, and so asked for permission to turn it into a meme. Mythicism tries, on the one hand, to turn the writings of early Christians who thought Jesus had lived in history into evidence of something else, while on the other hand, it concocts belief in Jesus as a purely celestial figure for which the evidence is there own implausible interpretations of texts which appear to mean something else. To think that mythicism has strong evidence and arguments in its favor, you must be seriously deluding yourself.

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  • Doug Ehrlich Auto Buyers Pro

    So short. So accurate. Very helpful meme. Thank you.

  • arcseconds

    Fitzgerald doesn’t believe in a celestial Jesus myth, but rather in some kind of multiple-origin folk-hero Jesus, which eventually became knitted into one figure.

    Although this illustrates another funny thing about mythicism: they criticise mainstream scholars for producing multiple Jesuses, and think there must be something dubious about such an activity, but we can see that mythicists are doing the same thing: there are multiple Jesus myth theories!

    Since listening to Fitzgerald’s interview with the Miami Valley Skeptics and reading McGrath’s recent piece in The Bible and Interpretation, I’ve started to think that mythicists might be frequently after closure and clarity, in a way that’s not dissimilar from religious fundamentalists. It’s much easier living life with a theory that puts everything into one basket, has an answer for everything, and there’s no loose ends, difficulties or mysteries any more. “They made it up!” is a way of washing their hands of the whole messy affair.

    As a partial aside, one can definitely find this attitude among science enthusiasts, too. The clearest examples of this are the bull-headed reductive materialists that one sometimes runs into, for whom reductive materialism isn’t merely good metaphysics but a useful way of dismissing every area of endeavour and every perspective apart from natural science (and computer programming) from the table. At best everything else is doing physics badly, but frequently it’s just nonsense. This is a partial aside because these people are also part of the atheist/sceptic movement, so there’s at least some shared influence here, and both may be aspects of the same phenomenon.

    Anyway, it looks to me like mythicists are paralleling Christian fundamentalists in another way, too. They settle on some simplicity that appears to give them closure and certainty and rid the world of nonsense, error, and judgement calls. But it turns out that application of that simplicity isn’t, in fact, sufficient to achieve this, so we just end up getting multiplicity once again.

    • https://plus.google.com/103783311760679881592/about Ophis

      It’s much easier living life with a theory that puts everything into
      one basket, has an answer for everything, and there’s no loose ends,
      difficulties or mysteries any more.

      I think trying to “put everything in one basket” is exactly the problem. After finding out that much of the story of Jesus is myth and legendary embellishment, mythicists fall for the temptation to assume that it is entirely myth. Then they have to try to find alternative explanations for things that are far more easily explained by a historical Jesus, such as James being known as “the Lord’s brother” or the relationship to John the Baptist, which seems to lead them down some weird paths.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    Richard Bentall has written a very interesting book called “Madness Explained”. In this book Bentall sets out his theory that what we call schizophrenia is not an actual medical condition; rather, it is one end of a psychological continuum. I don’t know whether I go along with that, but I think he makes some interesting points. All of the symptoms of schizophrenia can be found to a greater or lesser degree in people who are considered normal.

    One sign of schizophrenia is a tendency to see profound connections between things that other people regard as coincidental or trivial. A good example of this tendency in non-schizophrenic people is parallelomania, and it is taken to an extreme by Richard Carrier.

    Another sign of schizophrenia is the tendency to believe that events are being controlled or manipulated when in reality there is no such control. And again we see this tendency at work in Carrier’s theory of Christian origins.

    It is also interesting to note Carrier’s extreme intolerance of disagreement and willingness to impute the most disreputable motives to those with whom he disagrees – classic signs of paranoia.

    So while Carrier would not technically qualify as a schizophrenic, you can see that he has many of the traits that are characteristic of such a person.

    Given the obvious intellectual bankruptcy of mythicism, it might be profitable to examine the psychology that underlies it.

    • Nick G

      Another sign of schizophrenia is the tendency to believe that events are
      being controlled or manipulated when in reality there is no such
      control. And again we see this tendency at work in Carrier’s theory of
      Christian origins.

      And of course in almost all varieties of religion.

      Given the obvious intellectual bankruptcy of mythicism, it might be profitable to examine the psychology that underlies it.

      And of course…

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        Thanks Nick. It’s reassuring to know that someone is reading my comments :-)

    • arcseconds

      The inclination to find connections that aren’t there, tell stories that aren’t true, and see agency where there isn’t any, is a thoroughly human one. Every culture does this, and almost every individual.

      To do otherwise requires a very specific kind of cultural background, considerable training, and a whole swag of stuff that’s survived rigourous analysis.

      And the tendency is not necessarily entirely something to be regretted. Scepticism doesn’t get us very far, after all. Science requires both bold imagination and cautious scepticism, and the right amounts of each are rarely present in one individual.

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        The inclination to find connections that aren’t there, tell stories that aren’t true, and see agency where there isn’t any, is a thoroughly human one.

        And that was the point about the continuum. To what degree must someone show such a tendency in order to qualify as abnormal? Bentall’s point was that this sort of judgement is arbitrary. There are very considerable difficulties in psychiatry in defining abnormality.

        My comment wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously but I think there is a valid point to be made. Carrier’s thinking does seem to stray towards the pathological end of the spectrum. In normal circumstances I wouldn’t even mention this, but since Carrier has himself often accused other people of being insane, I thought I would give him a taste of his own medicine.

    • arcseconds

      I’m also not sure the picture of mental illness helps us much. I’m pretty wary of such things as it’s the ultimate in lack of charity: it’s a great way to completely dismiss someone and pay them no further mind. It’s also really easy to get the diagnosis wrong. Any psychotherapist worth their salt will tell you of the difficulties of diagnosis without a proper clinical investigation. Some credentialed academic philosopher once diagnosed Wittgenstein with dyslexia, which only told me he understood neither Wittgenstein nor dyslexia.

      Let’s say you’re right about Carrier’s tendency to see connections when there aren’t any. There’s certainly something to that: he’s seeing some sort of evolution of his dying and rising messiah through the early messianic literature, Paul and the Gospels that no-one else sees.

      But how does putting schizophrenia in the picture help here? Doesn’t it suffice to say he’s got a tendency to find unsupported connections?

      Also just being inclined to see connections where there aren’t any doesn’t explain why he’s a mythicist: the same could be said about all sorts of fringe beliefs about Jesus.

      Plus, Carrier seems… idiosyncratic, so anything we want to say about him might not help with analysing mythicism more generally. His connecting tendencies don’t explain why others find the story compelling. Mythicists and their sympathisers might swallow Carrier’s story, or at least regard it as something that’s on the table, but they don’t seem otherwise inclined to find connections. In fact, if anything, the problem is the opposite one: it often seems very difficult to get them to conclude anything from the evidence at all.

      Having said that, I think he shows narcissistic tendencies: while he’s clearly rather smart, he massively overestimates his own abilities. He clearly enjoys having followers, and his lashing out at his opponents looks a bit like narcissistic rage to me. But it’s still the case that while this might help explain why it works for him to be promoting a fringe view from outside the academy, and some aspects of his behaviour, it still doesn’t explain why it’s mythicism, and nor does it explain its attractiveness to others.

      (Also, the market for books shouldn’t be overlooked. I’m not suggesting that Carrier’s cynically writing this stuff to get money, but there is much wisdom in Upton Sinclair’s line “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it”. )

      I’ve been chipping away at something which is trying to look at other motivations too, hopefully I’ll get it finished tomorrow.

  • Jim Jones

    > to turn the writings of early Christians who thought Jesus had lived into history into evidence of something else,

    Who are these Chrsitians and what did they write?

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

      I don’t think I have understood the question, since it sounds like you are asking for a list of all our early Christian sources. Could you clarify what you are asking about?

      • Jim Jones

        Even one would be good. More is better.

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

          The letters of Paul as well as the earliest Gospels are all available online in English translation, those would be the place to start. I can’t believe you hadn’t heard of them before now!

          • Jim Jones

            But since some of the epistles are known fakes, how can we know which ones are really Pauline?

            And which gospels? The canonicals?

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

            I would recommend checking out from your local library a mainstream secular academic introduction to the study of these texts. If you want to understand how historians draw conclusions, you should get your information from such sources and not just through blog comments.

            But even before doing so, I hope you can grasp that certain letters are considered likely to be inauthentic precisely because of how they compare to those which have been judged almost certainly authentic.