Neil Godfrey on Paul-Louis Couchoud

Neil Godfrey on Paul-Louis Couchoud December 29, 2011

Paul-Louis Couchoud has something in common with other mythicists: he was not a historian. But Couchoud also has something in common with the kinds of mythicists that could, at one point, be taken seriously: he died more than half a century ago. He thus formulated his ideas and wrote about them before the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices transformed our understanding of phenomena such as early Judaism and ancient Gnosticism forever. So it is not surprising that mythicists from today like to focus on such figures, much like creationists who focus their discussions about science on Darwin and an earlier point in our knowledge rather than our current one.

(Even in an earlier time, of course, it was possible to find fault with Couchoud’s arguments. See Maurice Goguel’s Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History? available online.)

Neil Godfrey has been blogging through Couchoud’s views. He starts with an overview, and mentions the Mandaeans, whom Couchoud made reference to. The treatment of this topic shows the selectively critical nature of Couchoud’s endeavor and mythicism in general. How is it that texts written within decades of the life of Jesus cannot have useful information gleaned from them about the historical Jesus, but texts which in their present form are at least several centuries later are trusted to provide useful information? How is it that for mythicists the fact that our earliest copies of the Gospels are a couple of centuries after their composition is a major problem, but Mandaean texts can be cited without any cautionary remarks even though our oldest manuscripts of them are from a mere few centuries before our time?

In another post Godfrey focuses on Couchoud’s belief that the earliest Gospel was Marcion’s, an idea that is not found persuasive by the vast majority of scholars for good reason. Unless one is going to use the mythicist tool of selective skepticism to also redate the earliest church fathers, then we encounter in our earliest Christian sources a recognition of a relationship to Judaism that is ambiguous, and a desire to make a case for Christians as the true heirs of the Jewish Scriptures while viewing Jews as having misunderstood them. Why would a movement that emerged out of Marcionism ever reach that point? If one is willing to simply assert things and use the sort of infinitely flexible creative imagination that mythicists attribute to the Gospel authors, then perhaps one can find this plausible. But if one is trying to account for all the evidence within a plausible framework that makes sense in the setting in history that serves as their context, then this view simply fails to account for the evidence or make good sense of it.

The second post posits that the next step in the development is a Gospel of Basilides. As I mentioned earlier, we now know far more about Gnosticism than anyone did in Couchoud’s time, and such information really needs to be part of any discussion of ancient Gnosticism. But even without such considerations, it is simply implausible to make an argument based on selective skepticism. Recent scholarship has approached not only early church fathers’ claims about Jesus and the Gospels, but also their information about early Gnostics, with appropriate skepticism. Simply accepting some of their claims uncritically while being excessively skeptical about others is a method for getting them to conform with one’s preconceived ideas, not for getting at historically reliable information.

Godfrey follows with a description of Couchoud’s views on the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. Mention is made of Christians from Jewish backgrounds, but no attempt is made to explain how Jews would be won over to Marcion’s anti-Jewish Gospel. If, on the other hand, there were from the outset Jewish Christians who did not have Marcion’s view of the Jewish God – or perhaps even if there were not – then one must ask, whatever order the Gospels may have been written in, which of the various views found in sources allegedly written within decades of one another preserves more historical information. Despite the popularity of doing so in mythicism when it suits their agenda, it makes no sense to assume that what was written first always provided accurate information, nor that what was written within a matter of decades could not have independently preserved information.

Godfrey also takes a weak stab at commenting on my YouTube video. He simply asserts that it makes more sense to view early Christian information about Jesus as pure fiction than as the result of attempts to deal with the cognitive dissonance of someone believed to be the Messiah being crucified. But of course, since there is no need for a mythicist either to be consistently critical or to come up with a scenario that fits the necessary historical context, one can simply say that these views were originally fiction, and ignore the fact that our earliest sources reflect a movement which called people to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, who had been crucified and raised from the dead so that now the final resurrection of all human beings and the last judgment must be near. The theological claims of early Christians can obviously be disputed, but that is a separate matter, the point here being that they presuppose, when understood against the background of the Jewish concepts of their time, such as “anointed one” and “resurrection,” a historical Jesus of some sort.

The biggest flaw with mythicism, in my view, is its selective skepticism. Gnostic sources, such as the Mandaean texts, may indeed contain traditions that take us back much earlier than the likely date of their composition. But in order to recover such information, one needs to treat those sources with the same skepticism and critical tools of inquiry that are used to seek information about a historical Jesus – which is the only way of determining whether there was likely to have been one. And if one adopts the hyperskeptical stance that mythicists take towards the earliest Christian sources (when it suits them to do so) and applies it to the church fathers and to Gnostic sources, nothing that is historically useful will be found in those either.

But for those who know what history does and how it works, it is already clear that selective ultra-skepticism and selective uncritical acceptance are not a means of getting at reliable historical information, but of spinning history to appear as one wishes it to, in accordance with one’s already-existing views.

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