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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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