Mythicism and Historicism as Theories (and an Altar Call to Take a Leap of Doubt)

Mythicism and Historicism as Theories (and an Altar Call to Take a Leap of Doubt) February 22, 2010

Discussion of mythicism continues around the blogosphere. Eric Reitan has posted on the topic of mythicism. Neil Godfrey also has posted two rejoinders. I was rather disheartened to read a comment there from someone who said he reads my blog regularly and was disappointed at what he perceived as my closed-mindedness about the existence of Jesus. That is of course a response (yes, I know, here we go again) which one will often hear from creationists, expressing their dismay that a scientist whom they respect somehow failed to perceive just how powerful the criticisms of evolution are that have been offered by Behe, or Dembski, or whoever else.

The truth is that I am perfectly open to the possibility that Jesus might not have existed. If the evidence leads me there, I will go there. The problem is that the lack of certainty here, the lack of a persuasive explanation there, a significant disagreement among experts over there, all that does not make the existence of Jesus unlikely, any more than similar points about evolution somehow undermine the strength of that best-tested of scientific theories. Lack of evidence is simply lack of evidence – a good theory has to actually account for the evidence we do have. Indeed, perhaps comparing mythicism and historicism to theories in the natural sciences will be helpful. A theory is a framework within which to integrate, explain and account for a wide array of data. Both mainstream and history and mythicism claim to offer that. I certainly may have missed something important (who isn’t capable of doing so?), but from my perspective, mythicism doesn’t account in anything near as straightforward and plausible a manner with the relevant data as does mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus.

What I’m hearing from mythicists lately sounds like an ironically inverted altar call: only doubt, and the truth become clear. The problem is that I have doubted and continue to doubt. And it is skeptical, critical investigation of the evidence that persuades me that Jesus almost certainly existed, just as it has led me to accept that there are plenty of things in the New Testament Gospels that Jesus is alleged to have said and done which he almost certainly didn’t do. The failure of mythicists to acknowledge that it is possible to genuinely question Jesus’ existence and be persuaded by the evidence that he existed presumably explains why they have felt no need to offer a coherent, plausible account of Christian origins from a mythicist perspective. Like fideists in Christianity, the mythicist standpoint seems to say “Simply doubt, and you will know the truth.” Well, I have doubted, and doubt has not led me to mythicism, but to the conclusion that it is more likely that Jesus existed than that he didn’t.
And for the record, I have read things by Richard Price, and by Earl Doherty. But I’ve also read things by Richard Carrier, and particularly appreciated his podcast (apparently no longer available online) which challenged some common arguments used by mythicists. Since mythicists have published little or nothing in mainstream scholarly venues, it is hardly fair to criticize me for not engaging the best mythicist arguments, or complaining that the views I’m arguing against aren’t representative. When I’ve addressed a mythicist view or claim, it is usually because someone has made an assertion on my blog.

What Richard Carrier offered is what some creationists have offered. Mythicists have begun to police their own ranks and point out that mythicists themselves are guilty of using arguments that are problematic and thus unpersuasive. This is a good first step towards intelligent dialogue. Until well-informed mythicists begin to address the constant repetition of half-truths, falsehoods, mistakes and irrelevancies that typify many mythicist web sites, blogs, and commenters, it will be hard for anyone to take seriously the claim that they represent a phenomenon radically different than young-earth creationism. The only difference that seems clear at this stage is that one calls for a leap of faith, the other for a leap of doubt. But mainstream science, history, and scholarship in general is not about leaps but about careful step-by-step examination.

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