A Menu of Answers to Mythicists

A Menu of Answers to Mythicists April 11, 2011

At the suggestion of a regular commenter, I am going to try to save time in the future with commenters who ask the same questions, make the same claims, or otherwise behave in bot-like fashion. This post will contain in as brief form as possible points to make in response to mythicist claims. I presume that there is no need to restate the claims and “arguments” here – in fact, it will be more fun and more interesting to simply wait until the next time the same thing is said, and simply treat it as an order for a “#13”, hold the sarcasm.

It should save a lot of time. Here are the statements/answers/responses. I’ve inserted links from them to posts where I have dealt with a topic in more detail or at least touched on it. I may also add to and expand the “menu” as needed. In case I missed anything, here is a link to a round up of my earlier posts on mythicism.

Bon appetit!

Menu of Responses to Mythicist Claims

#1. Mentioning Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Achiles, Hercules, Ned Ludd, John Frum or anyone else in the same sentence as Jesus does not, in and of itself, constitute an argument. Discussion must also be offered of (a) whether and in what ways the processes that led to the production of stories about each are similar or different, (b) whether the genres are the same/comparable, and (c) how much time has passed between the time in which the stories are set and the one in which they were written.

#2. Don’t ignore the existence prior to the writing of the Gospels of the phenomenon that would in later times come to be referred to as “Christianity.” Suggesting that the Gospels were composed after Paul’s letters but that they were merely intended as fiction for entertainment is not going to work.

#3. “Brother of Jesus” as a phrase in the abstract could theoretically mean any number of things, just as Bill Clinton illustrated that “is” and “sex” mean different things to different people and in different contexts. That doesn’t mean that, in a particular context or usage, their meaning may not be clear or at least clearer. Fundamentalists and mythicists enjoy exploring all the possible meanings of words like “flesh” and “brother,” but within sentences and specific linguistic and grammatical constructions, constraints are placed on meaning. Without context “I’m going to throw the party” could be ambiguous, but when followed by either “of 6 out the window if they don’t decide what to order soon” or “for him at 7pm – but don’t tell him, it’s a surprise,” the ambiguity is removed.

#4. The quest for the historical Jesus and the criteria of authenticity do not presuppose the historicity of Jesus. They seek to demonstrate it in the only way possible. One cannot demonstrate the historicity of Alexander the Great in some abstract ontological fashion separately from all evidence for things he may have said, done, or had inscribed. The same is true in the case of Jesus.

#5. If you think that it is reasonable to expect the same evidence to be left behind by an itinerant exorcist and an emperor, you clearly have yet to begin giving this matter the serious thought it deserves.

#6. If one disqualifies literature as a possible source of historical information, then one must treat Socrates, John the Baptist, Paul, and a great many other figures in the same way as Jesus.

#7. Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed means showing there are good reasons to think that he did, not that it is impossible for anyone to construct a scenario in which it might have been otherwise. Historical study offers probabilities, not absolute certainties.

#8. Raising doubts about historicity is not the same thing as demonstrating ahistoricity. Just asking “what if” questions is not the same thing as trying to construct a positive historical case. That you can imagine a scenario in which Jesus was invented does not constitute proof that your scenario is the most likely based on available evidence, much less that it describes what actually happened.

#9. Take seriously the fact that Paul wrote letters to Christian communities. The letter part is important – writing materials were expensive, and Paul was not writing Gospels. The audience is also important – Paul wrote to people who already had enough knowledge about Jesus to share his belief in him as Messiah and Lord.

#10. Don’t just fixate on things Paul doesn’t say (see #9 – he wasn’t writing a letter). Notice the impression given by what he does say: Born, descended from David, crucified, bled, buried. Little detail about Paul’s views about Jesus as a human figure is not the same as no details at all.

#11. If the fact that pretty much every professional historian and scholar disagrees with you about the historicity of Jesus doesn’t concern you, then you are not giving this subject more serious consideration than the proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design give to biology and evolution. It is true that all the experts can be wrong, but it is also true that rarely, when all the experts are wrong, do people without expertise just happen to be right.

#12. As long as mythicists seem to agree with one another on almost nothing except the ahistoricity of Jesus, please stop treating it as an argument for mythicism that historians agree on little apart from his existence.

#13. If, as Earl Doherty suggests, the “life” and “death” of Jesus occurred completely in a celestial realm, is the same true of the recipients of Ephesians?

#14. Don’t just post advertisements for your book or web site in the comment section. Engage the arguments offered here.

#15. If you have never studied for a degree in history or Biblical studies, or have not made a concerted effort to educate yourself on ancient Judaism, the Greco-Roman world, and early Christianity, then you should not be constructing theories. Even those who have studied at graduate level construct hypotheses only to learn more and find evidence that is incompatible with their hypothesis, and have to revise their thinking. If you construct a theory without a solid broad knowledge of relevant data, you are bound to end up reaching conclusions prematurely – and then defending them against evidence that is pointed out to you.

#16. If you don’t believe it is possible to deduce the historicity of Jesus from a text purporting to be about him, how can you hope to demonstrate his ahistoricity from those same sources?

#17. The view that Jesus may have been thought to have lived in the remote past in relation to Paul’s time doesn’t take seriously his expressions of eschatological imminence.

#18. You may think that you are defending mainstream historical methods against methodologically suspect Bible scholarship. But you aren’t. There’s a reason why, like young-earth creationists citing scientists, you almost never cite recent writings by historians, and cannot actually find more than the odd exception that proves the rule – the rule being that historians agree with mythicists no more than New Testament scholars do.

#19. Just saying “Maybe Tacitus relied on Christian sources” is not the same as making an actual case that Tacitus would have trusted Christian sources or that he had no independent information about Christianity or Jesus.

#20. Doesn’t the fact that mainstream historians consistently find scenarios involving a historical Jesus the most plausible way to account for the evidence we have, coupled with the fact that mythicists consistently fail to provide a more persuasive alternative scenario, itself constitute evidence against mythicism and in favor of mainstream historical scholarship?

#21. The fact that something resembles a story from Scripture doesn’t mean that it was invented on the basis of that story. Applying Scripture to things was a common way of interpreting the significance of people and events, and fitting events into earlier types was a common memory aid. And, once again, that’s not what midrash refers to!

#22. You still have not shown that it is more likely that someone would make up a crucified Davidic Messiah than that such a belief arose as a result of someone thought to be the Messiah being crucified and subsequent efforts to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

#23. Please stop. You’ve said that before and now you’re just wasting my time.

All main courses listed above are served with a side order of further evidence and discussion, and an optional topping of sarcasm.

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