Mythicism’s Best Answers?

Mythicism’s Best Answers? April 25, 2011

Earl Doherty, supposedly one of the better advocates for mythicism, has continued to provide evidence over at Vridar that all of my criticisms of mythicism are on target.

Since Doherty is interacting with earlier numbered points of mine, I’ll use those numbers too here for ease of reference.

#13:  The point is simply that the sort of language that mythicists interpret as referring to a celestial Jesus is applied to apparently earthly Christians in Ephesians. The only reason mythicists interpret the language differently in the case of the recipients of the letter is that here there is little room for ambiguity. But ambiguity in the language applied to Jesus, in and of itself, leaves historicist and mythicist options open. To say that the letter otherwise shows no interest in a historical Jesus is simply begging the question. The letter shows relatively little interest in the historical recipients other than their battles with spiritual powers. To show that one can interpret a letter like this one as viewing Christ as a purely celestial figure is not the same as showing that the letter is better interpreted that way, much less that it can only be interpreted that way.

That is perhaps the most glaring problem with Doherty’s case: the double standard when it comes to evidence. Apparently when it comes to “proving” mythicism, all that one has to do is show that a mythicist interpretation is not impossible. If one shows that a historicist reading is equally not impossible, one is criticized for not having made an adequate case. To be taken seriously, the same standard needs to be used, and one must assess the probability of both. Historians’ criticism of mythicism is not that it is impossible, but that it is extremely unlikely, and yet nowhere do I see Doherty making the case that mythicism is probable, much less clearly true.

#16: It is only true that Paul never says anything about a historical Jesus if one ignores evidence to the contrary in Paul’s letters, and while I understand why mythicists find it enjoyable to do so, I have yet to understand why they also think that historians ought to do the same. As for the earliest Gospel having been written decades later, does anyone think that someone today writing about a figure killed in the 1970s would be bound to both even the basic question of whether that person actually lived? Why is having written “decades later” a reason for assuming that an author was a complete imbecile?

#19: No good case has been made for the passage in Tacitus being an interpolation. Making a case is not the same thing as making a good or persuasive one. Most find the idea that Christians invented an extremely disparaging reference to themselves less likely than the alternative, that the passage is authentic.

#20: The reference to the Ptolemaic cosmology presumably has Doherty poised to be a Galileo or Copernicus a millennium or more before his time. Is it possible that the majority of historians or cosmologists in the present day are wrong? Certainly. Does that make it more likely that some self-published author of blogger who disagrees with the experts is right? Not at all.

#21: He treats John Shelby Spong as an authority on Midrash! Need I say more?

#22: No question-begging. The issue is raised in precisely the right terms. Is it more likely the figure was made up or that the figure being described is based on a historical person, however much mythologized or reinterpreted. The question is the right one, and Doherty calls it “question-begging” only because he doesn’t have a persuasive answer for it.

As for the claims by Christians to have found Jesus predicted in Scripture, one major problem with mythicism, as I’ve said before, is that it finds Christian apologists to be persuasive in a way that historical-critical scholars do not find them to be. Seriously, just read the passages quoted as “fulfilled” in Jesus in Matthew 1-2. There are two options. One is that the author is thinking in terms of “typology” rather than “prediction.” The other is that the author is trying to pull a fast one and shoehorn Jesus into Jewish Scriptures. In neither case is it plausible to see the texts in question as the inspiration for the figure of Jesus in a straightforward way. He fits the alleged predictions poorly or not at all in many cases. But I am always grateful when mythicists illustrate that they read these texts no more critically or carefully than other apologists do.

#23: Doherty suggests that mainstream scholars have not understood mythicists’ arguments. I’ll let the reader be the judge. I think I’ve understood them quite well, and I expect anyone familiar with this area of academic inquiry to draw the same conclusion I have – that the reason for rejecting mythicism is not a failure to understand its claims and arguments, but because they are so obviously problematic. And I am extremely grateful to Earl Doherty for having provided such ample illustrations of this fact.

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