Mythicism: Microexistence vs. Macroexistence?

Mythicism: Microexistence vs. Macroexistence? February 9, 2010

Although I know some have found the comparison between Jesus mythicism and creationism offensive, it seems like the more time I spend thinking about this topic, the more similarities become apparent.

It seems to me that the claim of at least some mythicists that mainstream historians fail to address the existence of Jesus directly, much less prove it more probable than the mythicist scenario, is akin to the creationist objection that scientists have proven “microevolution” but not “macroevolution.” They object, in essence, not to this or that piece of data, but to the connections drawn between them.

In the same way, mainstream historians seem to always come away from an examination of the early documents about Jesus persuaded that he did in fact do or have done to him, say or say something not entirely unlike, at least a few of the things claimed in those sources.

Once again I wish to make the point I made in another recent post. Non-existent individuals do not say things or do things. If even one saying of Jesus, or action by him, or something done to him such as the crucifixion, is clearly more likely to represent authentic historical information rather than something invented, then we have to posit a historical Jesus. It may or may not be that most of what was later claimed about him was invented. That isn’t the issue – I don’t know a mainstream historian or New Testament scholar who thinks Jesus said and did everything that the New Testament documents claim. The issue regarding mythicism is whether there was a Jesus at all, out of whom the later legends grew.

To make the case for mythicism as the best explanation of the evidence, you have to have it be the best explanation for all the material we have. With the exception of some religious conservatives who have made up their minds in advance, everyone in the fields of history and New Testament accepts that some of the material attributed to Jesus in the New Testament was invented. That isn’t mythicism. Mythicism claims that it provides the best explanation for all the material, and if there were someone who had made that case, we would know about it. Mainstream scholars have written works that tackle every saying and event in the New Testament. I’m pretty sure that if a mythicist had produced such a voluminous work, it would have come up in the discussion by now. But if there is such a thing, please do let me know. If not, then it is obvious that mythicism hasn’t adequately made its case, because like inerrancy, it doesn’t work if it is only true of part of the material. If there is one error, then the Bible is not inerrant. If there is one piece of historical data about a real Jesus, then mythicism is wrong.

And so as New Testament scholars and other historians pay careful attention to specific details, we get accused in essence of proving “microexistence.” But authentic material about Jesus leads naturally to an authentic Jesus. We may not know much about him. But I think it is at this point that we really get to the heart of what mythicism is. It seems to be an attempt to sidestep the hard work of sifting through the historical evidence for those nuggest of material that can be judged authentic with a high degree of certainty. And that is what distinguishes academic historical study from mythicism: an unwillingness to make an a priori judgment about a figure’s existence rather than on the basis of a painstaking careful investigation of each piece of evidence.

Let me sum up and try to be succinct. Mythicism is a claim about all the available evidence, made by a group that has not (whether individually or collectively) provided a treatment of all the available evidence to support their claim.


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