Mythicism, Intelligent Design, Courts and Sports

Mythicism, Intelligent Design, Courts and Sports July 13, 2010

One thing cannot be reasonably denied. Mainstream historical Jesus scholarship (I am not, of course, referring to pseudoscholarly works of apologetics masquerading as something more serious) uses the same methods as mainstream historical study. Those who study early Christianity, those who study Jewish history, those who study Hellenistic and Roman history, those who study any of these overlapping areas or some subset thereof, all interact regularly at conferences, in scholarly volumes and publications, and in numerous other ways. While scholars certainly disagree regularly with one another’s conclusions, if we did not share some common scholarly methodological ground rules, such fruitful interaction would not be possible.

Reflecting on this, it struck me that mythicism is very much like intelligent design in at least one important regard. It wishes to redefine the methods of a scholarly discipline in order to accomplish an ideological agenda. What criteria should be used in historical study? What should the standard of evidence be? It seems to me that the answer of mythicism, inasmuch as it ever seeks to provide one, is ‘whatever criteria and standards allow the existence of Jesus to be denied.’

If some people on the fringes of the internet want to adopt that stance, there’s presumably nothing that can be done about it, any more than one can do anything about Intelligent Design other than keep making the case for scholarly methods and turning a skeptical eye towards dubious challenges to them. But as with intelligent design, the idea that some new ideologically-driven ground rules should be adopted instead of ones that have been agreed upon by reasonable people with expertise in the study of ancient sources, and which have served us well thus far, is not at all self-evident. If you want to redefine science, or history, you won’t persuade too many people as long as the motivation for doing so is clearly to enable you to claim academic legitimacy while reaching the conclusions you wish to.

I will appeal once more to an analogy for historical investigation that I’ve used before and that is popular and widespread. You may truly believe that your client is innocent or guilty. But when you are in the court of law, what matters is what you can persuade the jury, and you must do so using criteria of evidence that are well-established and have been honed through use and through effort to achieve a fair and just system. The system and its rules may be imperfect. But inasmuch as you want to appear in court, you must abide by them. And inasmuch as you want to advocate changes to them, you must do so through appropriate channels and having a firm basis with the necessary legal qualifications and expertise. History is not different, as far as I can tell.

So (to use a sports analogy) mythicists are welcome to propose new rules that they believe are better. But that will never be accomplished by standing on the sidelines and criticizing those who play the game by the rules. Couches and stadiums are full of such fans who know better than the players. Few of them could do a better job if given an opportunity to take the field.

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  • I don't say this to throw spitballs at mythicists. Maybe I should preface this with a disclaimer that I have even mentioned in conversation that it cannot be definitively proven that Jesus existed at all (before going on to aver that I think he did). But I think I see a parallel between mythicists and the more "apologetic" vein of quasi-scholarship. The obvious parallel is that both are championed primarily by people with a specific perspective on the religion – mythicists are almost universally atheists while apologists trend toward the conservative believer end of their religion's spectrum. The only slightly subtler parallel is that both seem to want more certainty than standard historical methods provide. Now, again, I'm not poking mythicists in the eye here. In fact, I think their approach to dissatisfaction with the confidence bars of historical research is more to be preferred than the apologetic response by far. That is – *they complain about the methods*. They suggest others that would yield its answers with more certainty. Most importantly, they point out how historical methods might, conceivably, find a historical Jesus even if none existed – and ask how we can be satisfied with this as a historical conclusion.James, I'm speaking out of turn here, because I'm not expert enough even to truly know what the standard historical methodology consists of, or to be sure that one side follows it more consistently than the other. But, from what I read on these interwebs, I am inclined toward your view of it. And if that view is right, then I think you are right – I think that the attitudes of mythicists have the most hope of making a positive impact on the study of early Christianity if the same entered the academic debate as advocates for a revised methodology first, and as advocates for their result from it second.

  • I don't think you are speaking out of turn. In reading the responses by Robert Price in the book I'm currently reviewing, I've appreciated some of his insights, and I've regretted when his mythicist stance undercuts arguments and points that might well otherwise be taken seriously.And I've appreciated this discussion with mythicists, because it has forced me to think about these matters seriously and not simply be dismissive.

  • 'Mainstream historical Jesus scholarship ….. uses the same methods as mainstream historical study'No, it doesn't.Mainstream historical Jesus scholars claim they use the same methods as mainstream historians, but which mainstream historian claims that he uses the same methods as mainstream historical Jesus scholarship?The claim 'We are as good historians as they are' is a one-way claim.Mainstream historical Jesus scholarship has crashed and burned for at least the past 100 years to the extent that people now write books numerating the quests and explaining why they failed.You're not doing it right.

  • The question of how 'good' a particular historian is is not the issue. We use the same methods, sometimes well, others less well. Historians, whatever their field of inquiry, are fallible human beings.This is only disputed by fringe bloggers whose views are not taken any more seriously or found to be any more persuasive by historians working on other subjects than those connected with the Bible. In other words, you're doing it wrong. :-)Feel free to discuss this with professional historians you know if that would help.

  • While I fully expect Luskin, or someone else at the Discovery Institute pool of knee-jerk responders, to complain about your characterization of Intelligent Design, but isn't this exactly what we have been seeing? It came out clearly 5 years ago at the Dover Trial when Behe [Professor Michael behe, Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute] agreed that in order for Intelligent Design to be accepted as science the very definition of science would have to be expanded to include supernatural causation.

  • One thing cannot be reasonably denied. Mainstream historical Jesus scholarship (I am not, of course, referring to pseudoscholarly works of apologetics masquerading as something more serious) uses the same methods as mainstream historical study.I reasonably deny that. New Testament scholarship appears to use certain tools that secular historians wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.What secular historians, for example, use the criteria of embarrassment or dissimilarity?Understandably, these criteria might have some genuine utility when they're used to determine which of multiple texts are likely to be the earliest, since it makes perfect sense that incongruities, theological problems, etc. could be ironed out over the years. But when they're used to determine whether a given text is more or less likely to be historical, they're nothing more than apologetics masquerading as scholarship.Did Washington cut down the cherry tree? Criterion of embarrassment: it's more likely to be historical.Did Hercules murder his family in a blind rage? Criterion of embarrassment: it's more likely to be historical.See the problem?By the way, have you read Burton Mack's The Christian Myth? As I'm sure you'd concede — particularly given his masterful A Myth of Innocence — he's a New Testament scholar with impeccable credentials (and, for that matter, a conservative Christian background). Yet in that book he provides a strong argument for exactly how Christianity and Christian texts might have developed without Jesus. Essentially, he claims that very early proto-Christian groups experimenting with new methods of social organization may have pulled together and developed various clever sayings and stories (whether Jewish, Cynic, etc.) to explain and justify their practices and goals, and attributed them to a founding figure. No need for the "big bang" of Jesus, his teachings, or his death.(In fact, something similar appears to have happened with the Rosicrucians, who almost certainly invented the figure of their founder Christian Rosenkreuz. Or the Luddites, who seem to have invented Ned Ludd in only 30 years or so. Or consider how the tribes of Israel almost certainly invented their common ancestor, Jacob, and his twelve sons, whose proper names actually appear to reflect various tribes' geographic origins (Ben-Yemen), former totem deities (Asher, Levi), etc.)If you haven't read Mack's book, you really should. Perhaps it would cause you to reevaluate your position on mythicism.

  • Well, actual historians disagree with you. And to the extent that, because there is so much controversy regarding the figure of Jesus, historians working in that area have tried to make their criteria more rigorous and more explicit, that's nothing to be ashamed of.

  • James, I really enjoyed your interview with Luke of Common Sense atheism… I wonder.. have you ever thought of producing any audio conversations on a similar format? I know you're busy with your new project with the Mandean texts… but if you had a spare hour or two per week, it would be a good opportunity for interested historians of other fields to comment on the unique problems of early christian history, on the methods held in common between the disciplines, etc… & would help educate people like me who would like to hear more perspective on the historical questions. Besides, podcasts make great entertainment for the morning drive to work…

  • Podcasts, eh? I'd love to do that more. I've also thought about recording my classes, now that we have that technology built in to an increasing number of rooms on campus.I will try it, when I can!

  • "Well, actual historians disagree with you. And to the extent that, because there is so much controversy regarding the figure of Jesus, historians working in that area have tried to make their criteria more rigorous and more explicit, that's nothing to be ashamed of."Richard Carrier has pointed out on his blog that NT historians are actually less rigorous than other fields of history. From the linked post:"Already I encountered a general muddle even before getting to this particular vexation. In any other field, when historians don't know the exact year a book was written, they determine a terminus post quem ("point after which," also written terminus a quo) and a terminus ante quem ("point before which," also written terminus ad quem) and then conclude the book was written sometime between those two years. And they admit they can't know any more than that, which is something New Testament scholars tend to gloss over, often wanting to fix the year more exactly than the evidence actually allows, and then browbeat anyone who disagrees with them. In other areas of history we don't try that. If the terminal dates for On Playing with Small Balls (an actual book written by Galen, no kidding) are "between A.D. 150 and 210" then we accept that On Playing with Small Balls may have been written at any time within that sixty-year span. We don't scoff at someone who suggests it could have been written near the end of the author's life, nor claim as if it were a decided fact that it was written at the start of his career instead. Either is possible.But in New Testament studies, the fact that the evidence only establishes termini for Matthew between A.D. 70 and 130 isn't something you will hear about in the references. Indeed, I say 130 only because the possibility that the earliest demonstrable terminus ante quem for Matthew may be as late as 170 involves a dozen more digressions even lengthier than this entire post. Because all the relevant issues of who actually said what and when remains a nightmare of debate so frustrating that I actually gave up on it mid-research, seeing it would take months to continue to any sort of conclusion, and not even a clear conclusion at that. Mind-numbing, truly."Now, how come NT scholars don't use criteriology on any "heretical" (or "obviously late") Christian material? Wouldn't you come up with a whole bunch of false positives? The problem is in assuming that anonymous, undated, third-person accounts are historical and then using criteriology to find primary evidence. Secular historiography, AFAIK, establishes by other means the integrity of their sources and then use criteriology to tease out meaningful data.It seems as though NT scholarship needs to get its house in order if it wants to successfully demolish mythicism. Until that happens, it's only going to get worse.

  • Quinton, if you think historians don't use extracanonical sources, you obviously haven't read any. significant work of historical scholarship published in the past few decades.And while I appreciate much that Richard Carrier has published, let's be honest: he's mythicism's equivalent of the creationists who have their minds made up, and then go get a degree in the relevant field to give them more credibility.Be that as it may, the point about the range of possible dates for Matthew doesn't have any obvious relevance to the question of Jesus' existence.

  • Evan G you treat tools of history like a surgeon using a jackhammer and back-hoe. Your criteria for historicity seems to be presumption.

  • J. Quinton

    "Quinton, if you think historians don't use extracanonical sources, you obviously haven't read any. significant work of historical scholarship published in the past few decades."I think you misunderstand my point. I wasn't saying that NT historians don't use extra-canonical sources. I'm saying that NT historians a priori assume that some works are historical and some aren't.If we assume that the gospel attributed to the Ebionites was de facto historical, then applying some criteriology to it we might have a Jesus that demanded the end of animal sacrifice in the temple. But because it's not assumed to be historical, then criteriology is not applied.I brought up Carrier's post because the larger issue is the claim that NT historians are doing the same type of history as other secular historians. And then following that claim, analogies are made that liken mythicists as being similar to creationists.Maybe if there was more honesty with the quality of evidence we're dealing with, and the level of uncertainty that comes with it, then these sorts of things wouldn't happen. I would prefer language like "Yeah, we have documents that we aren't certain who wrote them, where they were written and when, but I'm reasonably confident that Jesus existed" instead of "mythicists are like intelligent designers or creationists" or "skepticism about the existence of Jesus undermines all of history (this assumes that the type of evidence we have for Jesus is exactly the same as anyone else in history, and is not true)". There's no evidence in early Christianity that can be used to smack down mythicists on the level of endogenous retroviruses, succession in the fossil record, ring species, or conscilience with other sciences like when dealing with Creationists. So I think the level of rhetoric is unfounded.

  • I have from the outset emphasized the differences between the degree of certainty in historical study and the natural sciences. And I have from the outset emphasized that this wasn't the point of my comparison. My point has always been that in both cases, a fringe group rejects a strong mainstream position because of a failure to understand why the scholarly consensus exists, what its methods are, and much else, as well as for ideological reasons.From what you wrote about canonical sources, it still doesn't seem to me like you've read any recent works of historical scholarship on Jesus.

  • Well, actual historians disagree with you.Could you be a bit more specific? Who? And how? And are you talking about secular historians?And you're still ignoring my comments on Burton Mack, his indisputable credentials and knowledge of the field, and the fact that he holds an informed but nevertheless "mythicist" position.Here's another excerpt from The Christian Myth:The guild [of New Testament scholarship] pretends to be an academic discipline, but in fact resists the pursuit of a theoretical framework and the accompanying rules of argumentation necessary for coming to agreements about matters of data, method, explanation, and replication of experiments or research projects. These are foundational matters for an academic discipline. To resist them indicates that something else of importance must be driving the energies of the quest for reasons other than academic. Thus it is the case that most reconstructions of the historical Jesus have started with prior assumptions, unexpressed, about the importance of a certain kind of Jesus. With this assumed profile in mind, textual material has then been collected in its support. . . . If there is no agreement about what texts count and how to turn them into data for historical reconstructions, it means that the quest cannot be thought of as an academic discourse within a scholarly discipline. There are no rules for conducting research in the quest for the historical Jesus; there is no common, agreed-upon basis for debate bout theories of memory and mythmaking. Proposals of all types are brought down to the levels of personal opinions, explained by brief personal profiles of the scholars involved and left there. Naturally, those opinions tend to prevail in the popular mind of the guild and the public that are most congenial to the traditional ways of imagining Christian origins.It's easy to dismiss me, or "mythicists." But can you really dismiss Burton Mack?(Also, if you want Robert Price at the top of his game, I suggest his book Deconstructing Jesus rather than his contributions to The Historical Jesus. Much better.)

  • Biblical scholarship works just like any other historical discipline – not.Take Larry Hurtado's Analysis of Mark At first glance it looks just like any literary analysis.There is , in fact, no history in it – no more than a literary analysis of Macbeth is doing history.

  • I love it! Steven Carr seems surprised that when you do literary analysis, you don't uncover evidence about whether the story has any relation to history.Mythicism sure is entertaining in its ignorance of the variety of methods that scholars of the New Testament and other ancient literature apply to them.The academic study of the New Testament is better described as a field than a discipline, since in it one will find texts being studied using the methods of historical criticism, literary criticism, and other disciplinary methodologies. It is comparable to Classics in that regard, which is also a field comprised of multiple sub-disciplines and approaches, each of which overlaps with a disciplinary area of expertise which transcends Classics.

  • disqus_xEFHDaxwEP

    It`s very attractive to liberate the Jesus story from the hard Old Testament load. This story is so beautiful and simple that many secular people like it and looking at the staggering ancient stones they don`t think about the recent days of the Creation.