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Mythicism vs. the Socratic Historians

Mythicism vs. the Socratic Historians October 14, 2010

A recent post on Vridar illustrates one of the many problems with mythicism. One of the axioms of historical study (which, when ignored, leaves one doing apologetics instead) is that sources should be treated fairly. Accepting claims to the miraculous when found in the Bible while rejecting them when found elsewhere is not historical scholarship.

And neither is ridiculing those who find the evidence for the historical figure of Jesus as idiots, while treating those who view Socrates as a historical figure as sane and rational.

Neil Godfrey offers an extended assertion that history should only proceed where there is primary evidence in von Ranke’s sense. To quote Godfrey:

“Real” historians begin with, work with, facts that all historians and public readers can empirically verify are facts. There is of course the issue of probability. But I am talking here about empirically verifiable evidence or sources such as telegrams and inscriptions. I am also talking about evidence from secondary sources that can be independently and multiply verified and whose probability is also enhanced through such external corroboration and literary analysis.

Godfrey then offers this exception he found among books in the history section of a local bookstore:

There was one exception to this in the ancient history section. I did find two books on “the historical Socrates” – pictured above. The authors (or one of them, I don’t recall which) justified their books by pointing to the independently corroborated contemporary evidence for Socrates: Plato’s assertion that Socrates was a friend of the playwright Aristophanes is supported by references to Socrates in Aristophanes’ plays. None of this is primary evidence in von Ranke’s usage of the term. But since the evidence involves multiple and truly independent attestation, it does give some weight to the probability of the historicity of Socrates.

What I cannot understand is why Godfrey is willing to tolerate this non-empirical approach to history, even allowing that in these cases textual evidence alone might enable a historian to say that Socrates probably existed – just as I’ve suggested that a historian may, on the basis of the textual sources we have available, say something similar about Socrates. Not with certainty, as I’ve always emphasized, but in terms of probability.

It seems to me that here we get at the heart of the matter. If mythicists were interested in historical method for its own sake, they would be addressing the case of Socrates differently. If they were determined to deny the historicity of Socrates, we’d be hearing about how late the copies are of texts that mention him, and the possibility of interpolation. We’d be hearing emphasized that he is mentioned as a character in a play and in dialogues that are clearly intended to illustrate philosophical points rather than provide historical information. We’d have arguments that Xenophon turns Socrates into a real figure the way the Gospel authors are alleged by mythicists to have turned Paul’s doctrines into narrative.

A commenter on the post at Vridar asks why mythicism is not respected. Above all else, this is the reason. Mythicism isn’t about treating historical sources in the same way across the board. It is entirely the purview of people with a vendetta against Christianity, although even in such circles there are plenty who do not find it persuasive.

And it must be emphasized that it is taken no more seriously among mainstream historians than in Biblical studies. Indeed, less so. The practitioners of mythicism are not historians by profession, but people with degrees in fields like Biblical studies and theology, when they have higher degrees at all related to this subject. The very sorts of degrees the holders of which Neil Godfrey regularly disparages.

And so more than anything else, the issue is not simply that mythicists use unpersuasive arguments but the same methods as everyone else. No, apparently almost all historians missed the memo requiring that mainstream historians not try to ascertain probability when there are no inscriptions (telegrams are out of the question in the ancient world) and so they continue to discuss figures such as Socrates. And it is possible to explore in a sane and rational way the possibility that he was invented. But it is also possible to discuss rationally, and make a case for, his having existed, without inscriptions or telegrams. And that is clear evidence that the methods used by historians investigating Jesus are not unique to that particular area of ancient history. And to the extent that they are distinctive, such as in formulating specific, clearly-defined criteria of authenticity, it is because the figure of Jesus is so very controversial that, on the one hand, people have a vested theological interest that can skew what they see, while on the other hand, others have a vested interest in denying Jesus’ existence, so much so that they will see plainly and even highlight what historians do in cases similar to that of Jesus, and yet remain unwilling to apply the same approach fairly across the board.

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