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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  • Rey Jacobs

    “Paul-Louis Couchoud has something in common with other mythicists: he was not a historian.”

    And neither are you or any of the ‘historicists’ — you’re all just theologians, which means you’re all just hucksters.

    • Geoff Hudson

      “you’re all just theologians, which means you’re all just hucksters.” 
      Well come to that so are Steve Mason, Martin Goodman, Barbara Levick, Lawrence Schiffman and a host of other historians who interpret the writings attributed to Josephus literally.  This is surely the crux of the matter.  There is one history of the period, Josephus. The scholars have agreed a concensus. One follows the other like sheep. 

  • Rey Jacobs

    “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

    Which makes him almost a Genius — to have come up with the mythicist view before being able to demonstrate from those writings that Christ was invented from pre-Christian Gnosticism — why that is quite a feat!

    • Actually, the point is that the evidence subsequently uncovered about the Essenes and Gnostics undermines his claims made before those discoveries.

      And I am not sure who told you that historicists are all theologians, but it simply isn’t true. You can ignore all the theologians, since their views may be irrelevant. Those whose view matters include not only scholars of early Christianity or the New Testament but also Jewish history, Roman history, archaeology and more. Those are the folks with relevant expertise that ought to be taken seriously.

  • Rey Jacobs

    “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.”

    You mean they’d have to admit that the Gnostic doctrines are not history buy mythology.  Oddly enough, I didn’t think mythicists believed that Yaltabaoth and his 7 archons historically raped Eve, or than Acamoth historically created him or any of that, so what are you ranting about?

    • But mythicists accept claims about Gnosticism going back earlier than other forms of Christianity, if and when it suits them. That’s the sort of thing I meant. The use if Mandaean sources uncritically, for instance.

  • I think that both historicists and mythicists share a common problem, which is the tendency to go from “could happen” to “did happen” and “possible” to “probable” with inadequate justification.

  • Rey Jacobs

    <i."But mythicists accept claims about Gnosticism going back earlier than other forms of Christianity"

    Are you denying the existence of pre-Christian mystery cults?  The evidence that the cults of Attis and Mithras and others pre-exist Christianity is solid.  All Gnosticism is, is the meeting of Judaism and mystery cult, and the placement of the Jewish God into the scenario as the bad guy, along with some light interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis.

  • Rey Jacobs

     Besides that…the history that mythicists deal in is the history of the existence of a religion…the ‘history’ you deal in the existence of characters in religious texts.  That a religion existed is in no way questionable.  That a religion existed that believed crazy things is in no way questionable.  That a superman godman existed who performed miracles and died as a world-saving sacrifice and rose from the dead — whether we are talking about Attis, Mithras, Baal, Jesus, your momma — its questionable.  To try and par down the religion’s claims and take Mithras down from God to layabout teacher who mooches off of rich women and spins a few yarns would seem utterly ridiculous, but to do so with Jesus seems to you to be so solidly reasonable that you think anyone who doesn’t buy into it is insane — and this proves your own mental instability.

  • Rey, a couple of points. First, you seem not to be acquainted with the Gnostic literature that we have. The interpretation of Genesis is central to it, not something tagged on tangentially. This is exactly the sort of thing I am talking about. Mythicists tend to be armchair historians who are insufficiently acquainted with ancient history and literature to accurately assess what is plausible in such a context.

    The historical Jesus is not a miracle-worker, nor a god. He probably did have a reputation as a faith healer and exorcist, but so do some people today without therefore either actually performing miracles or ceasing to exist. It is the Jesus whose brother Paul had met, not the divine figure of late creeds and dogma.

    • Rey Jacobs

      I didn’t say it was tangential but ‘light’ by which I mean Genesis is merely used as an excuse to subsume the Jewish God into the system as the bad guy. It is a defense of the Hellenistic God of the Philosophers, the Ultra Transcendent God who has no passions, against the passionate and down-to-earth God of the Jews.  I think the fact that you don’t see this, shows you have no clue what Gnosticism is.

      ‘The historical Jesus is not a miracle-worker, nor a god.’  No, he is an *assumption* that behind the miracle-worker-godman lies a historical person for some reason. For most this assumption is fueled by the necessities of their faith.  I’m not sure what it is fueled by for an agnostic like yourself. ‘It is the Jesus whose brother Paul had met’ — you *assume* ‘brother of the Lord’ is not a title given to members of a religious order rather than a literal relation.

  • It’s behavior like this that makes mythicists seem just like creationists. Asserting that a well-argued conclusion is merely an assumption. Telling someone who has presented conference papers and received a major grant connected with the study of Gnosticism or evolution that they don’t have a clue about the subject.

    If you want mythicism to be taken seriously, treating it as though it were self-evident and everyone else is deluded is not going to help. It is not self-evident by any means, and pretending that it is, pretending that all people with expertise in history or other aspects of the study of early Christianity are deluded or bad at their jobs, just reinforces the impression that mythicism is just one more form of denialism.

  • Reyjacobs

    You’re the only person on earth who thinks mythicists are anything like creationists.  That makes you look like a mormon…er did I spell that right?

  • Geoff Hudson

    “Neil Godfrey has been blogging through Couchouds views”.

    But he always blogs through someone’s views.  In fact it is difficult to tell Godfrey’s views from the person through whom he is blogging.  When is he going to tell us what his views are?

  • Reyjacobs, it is almost exclusively mythicists who don’t consider themselves to be like creationists. Those who are not ideologically allied to the movement, on the other hand, can see quite clearly the similarities: a view found almost exclusively online, promulgated by lying, denying the competency of all experts in a field or positing a global conspiracy to hide the truth, and with a small handful of academic supporters who either teach at unaccredited schools or whose area of expertise is in something other than a relevant discipline or field.

    Can’t you see the similarity?

  • beallen0417

    Who is more like a creationist?

    Someone who doubts in the literal truth of Bible stories, or someone who believes they must have a historical core?

    Someone who distrusts that validity of ancient texts to describe things accurately, or someone who feels there must be some truth to them that we can discern by studying them really hard?

    Being credulous about the accuracy of a sacred text is the bailiwick of creationism, whether it is Christian creationism, Muslim creationism or Raelian creationism. Skepticism about the accuracy of a sacred text is the source of the bulk of our scientific progress. Darwin could never have defeated creationism had he not expressed it.

    So I’m happy to see the comparison written out again. 

    Who do you want to be like, someone who credulously believes the Bible, or someone who doubts it?

  • Who is more like a creationist? The historians who do doubt what the Bible says, and only accept details as historical after critical, skeptical investigation? Or the mythicists who not only couldn’t care less about the evidence or treating all sources critically, but then go on to leave comments that attempt to dishonestly construe the matter as though they were the skeptical, critical thinking ones?

  • Michael Wilson

    Beallen, the problem with using obvious lies to make your point is no one believes they are true so your hardly going to bring anyone around to see your side and it undercuts your credibility. If you have to lie to make your case, at least be subtle about it.

  • Reyjacobs

    “Who is more like a creationist? Someone who doubts in the literal truth of Bible stories, or someone who believes they must have a historical core?” (beallen)
    Michael Wilson…you see a ‘lie’ in that?  Are you sure you took your meds this morning?

    • The lie in that is the suggestion that historians simply assume stories in the Bible to have a historical core. Only someone who has not read a mainstream secular historian’s evaluation of the Bible, or who is deliberately misrepresenting historians, could make such a claim. Historians approach the Bible as they do other texts, skeptically, and conclude that something is likely to have a historical core only if the evidence and reasonable deduction lead them to do so.

  • Reyjacobs

    In any case there are certainly worse things to be than a creationist.  You make it seem as if evolutionists are all virtuous and creationists all evil.  If I were to stigmatize a group, it would not be the creationists…but the believers in original sin, and somehow I figure you probably believe in that.  I mean, it is possible, I know that it is done, that people believe in evolution but believe in a sort of evolution that brought about Adam and Eve, and then God told them not to eat the apple but they did, and poof we’re all damned.  They’ve found a way to defend original sin without creationism.  On the other hand, there are creationists who believe in the literal 6 24-hour day creation and yet find the story of the talking snake in the garden of Eden utterly absurd.  So my litmus test for sanity will not be creationist = crazy and evolutionist = sane.  My litmus test will be if you believe in original sin you are insane and if you don’t then you might be sane, regardless whether you believe in creation or evolution.

  • Reyjacobs

    So then I will say that historicists are like the believers in original sin — every story must have a historical core to them.  Surely somehow there really was a talking snake because the Bible says so and there must be a historical core.  It can’t be a myth. Why, if you say the talking snake it a myth, you must be a creationist!!!!!  There are so many similarities between those who say the talking snake is a myth and creationists!

  • Reyjacobs

    “The lie in that is the suggestion that historians simply assume stories in the Bible to have a historical core.”  By ‘historians’ you mean ‘historicists’ — lets keep our terminology right — you guys are not ‘historians.’   So, you don’t assume that historical core? Ok, just the ones about Jesus right.  You don’t believe there’s a historical core to the story of Sampson, or of Moses, or Abraham, or the talking snake?  Just when its about Jesus it must be true because Jesus must have existed because — what — the NT is more reliable because its newer?

  • No, I am talking about historians, those trained at university and experienced in the use of historical methods. This can of course include people with a number of different fields of expertise, and some of those (like Classics or Biblical studies) do not only focus on historical study, but include it as a major component.

    But even setting such people aside, one can focus all attention on those who are historians in the strict sense. No professional historian who has looked at the matter of the historical Jesus draws mythicist conclusions. It is that simple.

    Have you ever read anything by a historian on this topic? It really doesn’t seem like you have.

    • Geoff Hudson

      James, would you care to name a few professional historians who have looked at the matter of the historical Jesus and not drawn mythicist conclusions.

      • Michael Grant, Robin Lane Fox (not to be confused with Richard Wightman Fox, who is also a historian who has written about Jesus), and Gerd Lüdemann come to mind, and arguably one could also include others such as Paula Fredriksen, Géza Vermes, and L. Michael White, whose professional work in history is well established, even if the title of their academic position does not contain the word.

        • Geoff Hudson

          James, I have ordered a book, Jesus by Michael Grant, and a book by Robin Lane Fox, the Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome.  I have also ordered your book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context.

          You may be interested in my comments on Vermes’ article: Herod the Terrible or Herod the Great? published here:  The magazine editors called time and I was not able to conclude my responses.  I was building up to a time when Herod fell out with the priests, because he thought they had poisoned his wife Mariamne and his sons.   

          • Wow, Geoffrey, you basically hijacked the comments section of that article to fill it with an “article” of your own. Not cool.

          • Geoff Hudson

            Well yes I did.  That’s a simplistic observation.  Others did respond to the Vermes article.  I did not set out to write at length.  The responses were developed as I went along.      

          • I suppose no one may have told you this before, but blog comments are intended for brief comments and for discussion. To post a series of comments of one’s own is considered spamming. What would have been appropriate net etiquette in such a situation would be to post a lengthy response on one’s own blog (set one up if you don’t have one yet) and write one’s own lengthy response there, then link to it in a brief comment.

          • Geoff Hudson

            The Standpoint magazine article was not a blog.

          • Are you suggesting that that makes rude behavior OK?

          • Geoff Hudson

            It is a matter of opinion.

          • Only to the extent that all such social norms are.

  • beallen0417

    Great, an endorsement of Gerd Ludemann!

    I assume then, that Dr. McGrath will stop using Paul as a source for the historical Jesus, as Ludemann has stated clearly:

    “In short, Paul cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus.”

    Will Dr. McGrath now retract all his postings regarding Galatians 1:19?

    And L. Michael White wrote a whole book about how the Gospels are like movie scripts! And he’s supposed to be a source for the historicity of Jesus. Paula Fredriksen doesn’t believe Jesus ever made a disturbance in the temple, will Dr. McGrath stop using Sanders lists?

    So many questions for the new year … Happy New Year!

  • Presumably blog readers can see in beallen0417’s latest comment the same technique creationists and other denialists use, namely quote-mining. He has yet to grasp that movies can be based on fact as well as completely fictional, he pretends that in questioning the historicity of specific details these scholars have concluded or support the conclusion that there was no historical Jesus, and he is arguing from authority that one ought to accept every single view on every single matter that any individual scholar argues for – if it supports mythicism.

    Can everyone see why I had to abandon trying to have reasoned discussion with him? Like Cdbren over on the thread about creationism, he keeps coming back to repeat the same claims over and over again, as though either uncapable of actual human communication or uninterested in it.

  • Michael Wilson

    Reyjacobs, I find it ironic after reading your post that you would wonder about me taking meds.  Beallens seems to be unaware that historians of the New Testament both doubt the Bible is literally true and doubt the validity of the ancient text.  That they do would be obvious from reading their books. Beallen has, so his failure to note this needs an explanation.  It also odd that he feels only his opponents think there is “some truth” in the sources. It has been proven that there is some truth in them and no one, not even mythicist, deny this.  Even if Jesus, Peter, all the Marys, and all the episodes are fiction, Pilate, Caiaphas,  Jerusalem, and Galilee are all proven historical facts and one could discuss them as the “historical core” of the New Testament  in the same way we could discuss WWII as the historic core of + Captain America comics. The rest is quibbling over how much.

  • I’d be curious to see whether beallen/Evan could find an actual source for the quotation from Gerd Luedemann he offered. I suspect he could only trace it as far as the Vridar blog and that he has recycled it from there.

  • Michael Wilson

    James, is this an accurate representation of Gerd’s thought? I’m not familiar with his work. Applying source criticism to beallen, I would say that while he is a generally unreliable source, he tends not to invent quotes but only quote them out of context, and unfortunately in this instance, without citation.

    • If you Google the quote, I think you will be able to deduce where Evan/beallen got it from…

  • Reyjacobs

    Wilson, I think it would be more accurate to call WWII the historical BACKDROP of Captain America, not core.  Of course Nazis actually existed, but I wouldn’t take Captain America as a source for what they were actually like; they weren’t as silly as portrayed there, they were more brutal.  In the same way Herod, Pilate, Jerusalem and the like surely all historically existed, but can we take the NT as a reliable source for what they were actually like?  It is a historical core or a historical backdrop?  Did Herod really have all the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered?  Herod existed….but if you want historical information about what he was actually like you’re better off with Josephus than the NT.

  • beallen0417

    Dr. McGrath, it’s from “Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus” by Gerd Ludemann, in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, Joseph R. Hoffman, editor. It’s from page 212. I typed it out while looking at that page. On page 211 he states, ” … one must nevertheless concede the infrequency of either explicit or implicit references to Jesus’ teachings to be found in the Pauline letters. The argument that he could assume his readers’ familiarity with these because he had already passed them on in his missionary preaching is not convincing. He could and does presume some familiarity with the Greek translation of scripture, the Septuagint, which was mediated to his converts either by himself or earlier by the local Jewish community. For this reason he repeatedly and specifically cites it in the course of his ethical teaching. Moreover, when Paul himself summarizes the content of his missionary preaching in Corinth (1 Cor 2:1-2; 15:3-5), there is no hint that a narration of Jesus’ earthly life or a report of his earthly teachings was an essential part of it. The tradition of the Last Supper (1 Cor 11:23-25) is no exception, for it is an etiological legend that serves to endorse a liturgical practice in the various churches.”

    I assume you are familiar with the lengthier treatment Ludemann gives these issues. I note you use the arguments he finds fault with frequently. Where do you differ with Ludemann and why?

    • If at any point Evan/beallen0417 is willing to acknowledge that making facile comparisons to comic books or movies is not actually the making of a point, I’m certainly happy as always to try yet again to engage him in intelligent mature conversation. As long as his stance continues to be that those particular media somehow are incompatible with the telling of stories about figures who existed in history, whether or not the specific stories in question happen to be historical, then it will continue to be impossible to have serious discussion, just as it has proven impossible in the past, not due to any unwillingness on my part, but due to deliberate time-wasting and a lack of seriousness on Evan’s/beallen0417’s part.

  • Michael Wilson

    James, looked up Gerd’s quote, and vridar explained it well enough in context. I assume you have diffences with a number of scholars opinions, if not all of them. Since Gerd agrees that Paul thinks Jesus existed on earth, i’m not sure why his opinion would support Evan’s line of thinking. The article doesn’t discuss what Gerd may think about Galatians 1:19 so I’m not sure why he thinks you and Gerd feel diferently about it, we don’t know what he thinks of it, maybe he addressses it in the book.