Mythicism as Selectively Critical: The Example of Couchoud’s Treatment of John the Baptist

Mythicism as Selectively Critical: The Example of Couchoud’s Treatment of John the Baptist January 29, 2012

That mythicism is selectively critical, and selectively applies rigorous skepticism to sources, is easy to illustrate. Take  Couchoud’s treatment of John the Baptist as summarized in a recent post on the blog Vridar. There is no skepticism expressed about the words and views attributed to John the Baptist in the New Testament, no suggestion that the information in Josephus might be an interpolation, and no hesitation to use Mandaean sources from many centuries later to provide information about the Baptist and his movement.

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  • Erp

    No.  Many people seem to be lined up on two extremes.  Either the Bible is mostly [or completely] historically correct (and I have been tussling with someone who insists that reasonable historians accept not only that Jesus almost certainly existed [which I agree with] but that they accept that his physical resurrection is also supported by the data [which I disagree with]) or that the Bible must be ignored almost completely (the mythicist camp with which I disagree).   I suspect the mythicist position is alluring to some because it irritates Christians even though it does not have the evidence (I’m an atheist myself but have some training in history).

  • Michael Wilson

    I liked ” I cannot accept any of the narratives of John’s death. The Josephan account is too simplistic with its setting of the war over a personal insult — this recalls to mind the “saga” genre in which kings traditionally go to war over such personal affronts. And Dennis MacDonald (and, I think, Robert Price?) have pointed to other literary origins of Mark’s account of John’s death.Other recent posts have also drawn attention to the symbolism underlying names like Paul and Simon. We cannot forget in this context the nagging suggestion that John has been thought to be linked with Oannes the water god. Is this also an epithet taken on by a historical person? But this is entirely speculative.”

    It’s not just speculative but idiotic. I generally like Campbell, but his suggestion that John may be linked to Oannes was not one of his better observations and it’s easy to forget if you have any sort of background in the period. As with Simon and Paul making cases that peoples very common names are symbolic, especially given the rationales given by Neil, is empty speculation. It’s on par with the folk-etymologies offered by various mythologies or high school lit-crit essays. This is especially bad given that not even the great Earl Dorety thinks Paul’s “undisputed” letters are forgeries or that Paul is a fictional invention. Shall we go through the morning paper and find all the symbolic names in them (our president and the former Iraqi president share part of a name. must be something to that)?
    I’m not sure where Neil got that bit about the personal insult being a sure sign of fiction (is this crap Neil’s own personal criteria of authenticity?). for the counter see
    “on Napoleon III’s accession, Czar Nicholas I sent a him a telegramme that began, “Monsieur mon ami”, instead of the traditional and customary “Monsieur mon frère”. It was an insult to Napoleon III and also was a diplomatic snub; Napoleon wanted revenge.”
    “Realizing they could be even stronger with their powers combined, the two united …to seal the deal, and what better than a couple of marriage vows to do the trick? Octavianus wedded Antony’s stepdaughter, and Antony took Octavianus’ sister, Octavia,…. Once old Mark caught sight of Cleopatra, he wanted a divorce. Meanwhile, this didn’t really help matters between Octavianus and Antony, as the two men had remained rivals through their dealings. But news of the Antony’s divorce helped Octavianus decide he’d had enough.”
    “In 758 CE, Caliph Abdullah al-Mansur, the titular ruler of all Islam, decided to order one of his nobles to take a royal Khazar bride and bring about some peace (the Khazars had fought two brutal wars to stop Islamic expansion into the Caucasus Mountains and Eastern Europe). To carry out this seemingly easy task, al-Mansur piced the military governor of Armenia, Yazid ibn Usayd al-Sulami, for the great marriage mission. Of course, Yazid was happy to comply, and took home a daughter of Khagan Baghatur, the Khazar leader. Things were going very well when the girl somehow died, possibly in childbirth, though the details are vague. Her attendants, however, didn’t need details. They returned home convinced that some Arab faction had poisoned her (not unreasonable, all things considered). Needless to say, Pops got angry, and took his revenge on the Abbasid Caliphate.”
    And let us not the forget the British rebellion which occurred after Boudicca’s daughters were raped.

  • Yes, you do.

  • Oh my goodness! I once posted a critique of E. P. Sanders’ treatment of John the Baptist claiming he was not critical enough of the Gospel accounts of John the Baptist — I even said the logic supporting the historicity of John the Baptist was invalid — and you flew at me for being unreasonable.

    Do you REALLY want us to consider that what we read in Josephus might be an interpolation???

    How can we win, James?

  • You seem not to have read the post, James, but skimmed it way too hastily. You will observe that Couchoud makes NO use of Mandean texts to shed light on the John the Baptist movement, shows evidence of critical analysis of the words attributed to John in the Gospels, and is on the same level as probably most if not all mainstream scholars re Josephus.

    • Did someone else write the post? For a post that I thought you yourself had written, your recollection of the details seems remarkably spotty. But of course, it is comparable to your recollection of my posts about Vansina and of your insults, and so perhaps I ought not to be surprised.

      • Why this rudeness? I simply pointed out — correct me if I am wrong — that the post in which I outlined Couchoud’s views did not use Mandean texts to get information about John the Baptist. All he said was the most uncontroversial thing imaginable, that baptism is continued today (in particular early 20th century) among Christians and Mandeans. James my friend, and let’s at least try to be friendly, if I am wrong then quote me the sentence where Couchoud supports your claims.

        Here is the paragraph:

        The believer comes down to the Baptizer and is immersed, thus entering
        into the Kingdom, now saved from the whirlwind of fire to come. Through
        this rite — to be preserved among the early Church and the Mandaeans —
        the believer is separated from the rest of mankind and bonds with a new
        and saved community.

        Now where does that indicate that Couchoud is gleaning info about JB from late Mandean texts? It doesn’t. No Mandean text is even mentioned. He is simply citing common knowledge about current practices of two religious groups today/20th century — Christians and Mandeans. Full stop. Does any scholar disagree with this claim? Now you are a scholar who has done a lot of work on the Mandeans and I wish you were civil enough for me to be able to approach you for learning. But do you think if anyone else, or if a mythicist, ever breathes the word “Mandeans” that they must be wrong by definition?

        Also you will notice the several textual emendations throughout the summary of John the Baptist’s preaching and a commentary one a point or two of the text. Is that not evidence of some critical evaluation of what the Gospels say?

        One of them is made overtly (you will notice absences from the Gospel records)

        [ the context of the next verse explains the meaning of wind and fire;
        the word “holy” before wind (same word as spirit) was a Christian
        addition and foreign to the context]

        I submit that contrary to your sweeping assertion that this line does indeed express some “skepticism … about the words and views attributed to John the Baptist in the New Testament”.

        James, Please, all I am asking is that you stop making wild assertions contrary to the plain evidence in what you read by a mythicist. One almost suspects that you have made up your mind before you read that it is going to be nonsense so you “find it” even when it is not there or even contradicted by what is there and the only people who love you for it are foul mouthed Mike Wilson and the dimwit anonymous insulters.

        Now are you still going to refuse to support your accusations once again and repeat that you have amply demonstrated your point in your original post and impugn insanity to me if I point out that — as I have here — the evidence that you have misrepresented Couchoud even as I summarized him without his footnotes and scholarly citations?

        Are you going to once again just walk away from a civil, respectful, scholarly and evidence-based response as is your tiresome style?

        And does not the charge of inconsistency also require a comparison so we can where one does one thing one way and then another way another time? You have only shown Couchoud making no more or less than the same assumptions and sceptical approaches as probably most over NT scholars of his day.

        • Neil, you explicitly mention Lidzbarski’s translation of the Ginza Rba. Are you just being dishonest in your comment, or do you not know that that is a Mandaean text?

  • Just Sayin’

    McGrath, why do you Walk Away rather than Stand and Deliver???

    • I love it! A Neil Godfrey clone who doesn’t pretend not to speak in song titles! 🙂

  • Gilgamesh42

    James, doesn’t Lidzbarski also provide his own arguments about things rather than just translate Mandean works? From what I gather, what Neil cites from Lidzbarski (via Couchoud) is his scholarly opinion on the origin and meaning of Nazorean. This is discussed, for example, by Gundry, “The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel”, pp. 100f.  In which chase, Couchoud isn’t uncritically citing Mandean texts but the scholarship of someone who studied the matter along with Christian literature (Acts 24:5 is particular is cited).  I don’t see that as uncritical, especially when Lidzbarski was a major figure in this area in the 1920s.

    • I don’t find anything inherently problematic in Lidzbarski using Mandaean texts and deducing that there may indeed have been a pre-Christian group known as Nazoreans. What I object to is the acceptance of such deductive reasoning about earlier events based on much later texts when being unwilling to accept similar types of reasoning and arguments based on other texts which are much closer in time to the events in question. It is the inconsistent use to which Lidzbarski’s translations and his own arguments are put by Couchoud and other mythicists, compared to their treatment of the much earlier texts included in the New Testament, that I view as inconsistently critical and thus problematic.

  • Gilgamesh42

    However (as I noted above), the argument Couchoud was relying upon was not resting only on Mandaean works but also the early Christian evidence, such as Acts 24:5. You know that Lidzbarski’s case was more complex than just what the Mandaean said centuries after the fact, so I don’t you are being fair in this criticism. Moreover, you would have found fault with Couchoud had he dismissed Lidzbarski’s argument offhand as you suggest he does the New Testament evidence, especially if Lidzbarski’s case was scholarly and well-received at the time (from what I can tell, his position was respected).

    • I would not have found fault with Couchoud’s consistency if he dismissed the later Mandaean sources as more likely to be mythical and ahistorical than the earlier Christian sources. If someone were to point to still later evidence that seemed to correspond to and confirm something in the Gospels regarding the historical figure of Jesus, and offer that as evidence to a mythicist, what do you think they would say? It is the inconsistency that is the issue, and the selective willingness to accept the testimony of a variety of sources when they support one’s preexisting theory, but the dismissal of them when they do not, that I am highlighting as problematic.

  • Gilgamesh42

    Ok, that is a fair point.

    • I agree it would be a fair point if Dr McGrath actually demonstrated it is a valid one in Couchoud’s case. First, all he is doing is making judgments based on blog summaries of one of Couchoud’s works; secondly, what he says about even that summary does not match with anything in my post: there is nothing in my summary to suggest C relies uncritically on anything, but in fact I have specifically cited evidence that he relies on scholarly analysis and Dr McGrath quite simply ignores these facts.

      Now I am as critical of Couchoud’s views as anyone, but my criticism is based on his adoption of the assumptions and methods of HJ scholars uncritically. But this is not McG’s criticism.

      McG even goes so far as to say I should be consistent “unlike Couchoud” but it is my very consistency that has drawn his most vitriolic attacks on me. I do not accept the Gospel narratives as gateways to historical events (at least not through their narrative plots etc) and I do reject the Gospel portrayal of JB. But this, according to McGrath’s past criticisms, means I am being “hypersceptical” — and of course he never addresses my reasons or arguments, only my conclusions.

      So where is the consistency — and factual basis — in Dr McGrath’s accusations?

      • Neil, don’t just walk away without answering my points. Did you not know that the Ginza is a Mandaean source, or were you being dishonest when you denied making reference to any Mandaean source in your post?

        • Yes, I have known about the Ginza and Mandeans for many years, James. What is your point? Will you be more convinced if I retype Ginza in italics — I know if I used quotation marks it would be a sure giveaway I was lying. In fact my interest in the Mandeans was initiated back in the mid 1980’s and I have a little library of Mandean references and scholarly works, including art and architectural works, of the Mandean communities. I have been particularly fascinated for quite some years in the Mandean Australian community, and was especially horrified to learn of the fate of their Iraqi relatives in recent times. I made special trips to academic libraries just to photocopy articles and take out special loans on them. In fact their fate was high on my mind at the oubreak of the first Gulf war. My interest was probably partly initiated by the religious interests I had through the 70’s and 80’s and beyond, along with other minority groups such as the Christian Assyrians.

          When I learned you had done some specialist work on the Mandeans I was looking forward to engaging you in a number of discussions on their history and sources, but you unfortunately have not shown yourself to be very approachable.

          Now what does all of that prove? Does it mean I am right now all along? Of course not. You are simply playing games to avoid — once again oh so tediously — avoiding responding when I point out that you have ignored the evidence and arguments you think you are criticizing. You accuse me of dishonesty and insanity, but James, I think you are resorting to ad hominem because I have been thorough and careful enough with my facts and logical consistency to show that you lack attention to these things. Things could have been very different had you not been so quick to launch into personal ad hominem attacks and demonstrated a little humility when engaging others who sometimes really do know a little more about some things than you do, or who at least are not as ignorant as you assume.

          Would you like me to requote, copy and paste, my 2 sentences in my original post in which Mandeans are mentioned? Would you like me to requote my points about Couchoud’s critical use of NT sources?

          Would you like to actually address all of my questions in my recent comments? Or Would you like to just return to this silly childish game of ignoring the evidence I place before you and eventually claiming to have answered everything “long ago” and declaring I must be in need of mental or physical treatment if I expect you to provide a direct and unequivocal response?

  • It never occurred to me that my reference of C’s use of a scholarly work to make a conditional point could possibly be interpreted as an uncritical acceptance of very late manuscripts to info about JB. That doesn’t make sense.

    You also overlooked the evidence I quoted and described that C was not uncritical of the NT claims about JB’s teaching. Where is the honesty here or did you only skim half my initial post and again only half my comment?

    How is C any less critical than any other NT scholar here?

  • Just to be sure you do not think I am avoiding any of your questions let me also respond to the “or” part of your query — even though it does not follow as a logical alternative to your “either” clause. I made no direct reference to any text except the work of C. I pointed out that he proposed a conditional detail of historical data by reference to an authoritative scholar. I also provided evidence of his critical response to NT info about JB. You said C used sources uncritically – no evidence to the contrary – but I submit that appeal to a scholarly authority to make a passing conditional point and
    independent text critical analysis to make a substantive point about
    JB’s teaching contradicts your initial assertion.

    • If you are not familiar with the arguments of Lidzbarski which Couchoud was drawing on, it is fine if you just say so. But the claim that the group centered around John the Baptist were known as Nazoreans is based on deductive inference from the Mandaeans’ use of that term.

      • If you are not familiar with the arguments of Lidzbarski which Couchoud
        was drawing on, it is fine if not you just say so. But the claim that the
        group centered around John the Baptist were known as Nazoreans is based
        on deductive inference from the Mandaeans’ use of that term.

        Since you did not ask me if I was “familiar with” L’s arguments I did not answer that question. Otherwise I would have said, No, I am not “familiar” with them in a scholarly sense but I did read much of them quite some years ago when I was trying to come to grips with a range of Mandean sources, literary and artistic as well as cultural. I attempted not to walk away from the question you actually asked me, though: whether I knew if the Ginza was a Mandean source:

        Did you not know that the Ginza is a Mandaean source


        So what is accomplished now by shifting the goal posts? What does any of this questioning have to do with the initial point of our discussion? Perhaps we can walk back to the original question and provide a direct and unequivocal response to what I have asked you from the beginning:

        The point in question is your erroneous assertion — based entirely on a blog summary of C’s point — that:

        There is no skepticism expressed about the words and views attributed to
        John the Baptist in the New Testament, no suggestion that the
        information in Josephus might be an interpolation, and no hesitation to
        use Mandaean sources from many centuries later to provide information
        about the Baptist and his movement.

        Yet I have quoted now in my original post and again for your benefit in a comment here that C did display evidence of a critical engagement with the NT claims of the teaching of JB. You studiously avoid any mention of that in any of your responses.

        It is not good scholarly practice to rely on blog summaries by amateurs as grounds for speaking in your academic capacity to make very critical and damaging comments about a third party. It is even less appropriate to make claims about that third party that are in fact contradicted by the information in that blog summary.

        But further inquiries would have led you to being aware that C begins his discussion of JB lamenting the lack of information we have about him. He says:

        “Christianity has altered his office and played hanky-panky with his words and deeds.” (p. 26)

        Now does that sound like C is without hesitation accepting uncritically NT claims about JB?

        As for your claim that I was addressing the text of the Ginza, an inference you drew from my blog summary and not supported by what I actually wrote there, a simple inquiry would have brought to your attention that C places all of this information in a small-print footnote and remarks that he points to words of L in his Introduction to the Ginza, his scholarly discussion, and not from his own “uncritical” treatment of the Ginza itself.

        So perhaps you would now like to post a retraction to your initial post that C does not hesitate to uncritically use sources and shows no sign of scepticism with regard to sources.

  • So why are you now walking away from the original point, by pretending that Lidzbarski’s views expressed in the introduction to his translation to the Ginza are somehow completely unrelated to the text he was introducing? Do you think Lidzbarski drew conclusions about ancient Mandaeans apart from considerations related to, and evidence found in, Mandaean texts?

    • The original point is your assertion about C’s use of sources. Shifting the goal posts is not addressing that. Yes, C used the Gospels as sources for the substantive portion of his argument and not uncritically as I demonstrated in my previous comment with direct quotations highlighting his sceptical approach. He added a footnote to a scholarly discussion of the Mandeans.

      Your original assertion that C was unhesitatingly uncritical of sources is contradicted by the facts. The professional response now would be for you to thank me for better informing you of errors in your original claims and post a retraction.

      What I think about L drawing conclusions through a critical process makes no difference to this point nor to your professional responsibility now. (If I can pick up L’s volume again some time I would be happy to discuss your question as a separate topic.)

      • You keep walking away and moving the goal post as you go. You cannot simply rewrite what the original question was after the fact.

        When you claim that I said that Couchoud is “unhesitatingly uncritical” in a post which in its very title specifies that I am criticizing him and other mythicists for being selectively critical, is that a sign of your incomprehension or your dishonesty?

        As for Lidzbarski’s edition of the Ginza, it is available on for you or anyone else to consult at their leisure.

        • Yes, selectively critical exactly. And you specified exactly the sources and places where you said C was being inconsistent by expressing “NO skepticism about the words and views attributed to John the Baptist in the New Testament . . . NO HESITATION to use Mandean sources . . . . ”

          You were very specific about where you claimed C was being uncritical:

          There is no skepticism expressed about the words and views attributed to
          John the Baptist in the New Testament, no suggestion that the
          information in Josephus might be an interpolation, and no hesitation to
          use Mandaean sources from many centuries later to provide information
          about the Baptist and his movement.

          It was that claim I addressed. Anyone with a sense of professional accountability would not want that to remain on record as their last word given my demonstration that it is a false claim.

          • Anyone with more common sense than it seems that I have would give up kicking balls towards your ever-shifting goalposts.

          • 🙂 Quoting the very words of the original assertion being discussed is shifting goalposts???  Just a little humility and confession that you can sometimes make mistakes even when attacking mythicism is all you need, James.

          • Claiming that I am the one unwilling to admit that he makes mistakes, even as you continue to dance around and avoid dealing with my points and my exposing of your dishonest or mistaken treatment of the question of Mandaean sources in your post about Couchoud, shows chutzpah, I’ll give you that. 🙂

          • James, you are not very good at recognizing logical fallacies in your style of arguments. You would do well to study the fallacy of Tu Quoque. Its fallacious use lies at the heart of most of your attacks on mythicism.

          • Your accusing me of committing the Tu Quoque fallacy really is a case of the pot calling the kettle black…


          • Sorry, James, but though you have angered me too many times in the past I simply don’t hate or despise you the way you seem to do me, with all your accusations of my ‘dishonesty’ and ‘insanity’ and childish ‘you too’ barbs. I hope you can find it within yourself to go to a hardware store, buy some timber, build a bridge and get over it, as they say — at least one day soon.

            Tell you what. I will stop exposing your intellectual deficiencies if you start being nice, even to those you ideologically despise.

          • Neil, the biggest problem in our interacting nicely is that you engage in deception, insult, and other disrespectful tactics, and then have the audacity to top it all off with a comment like your last one in which you claim that the problem is your exposure of my intellectual deficiencies and my failure to be nice, when the reality is obviously the reverse.

            I have no intention of ceasing from exposing the logical and evidentiary deficiencies of the mythicist nonsense you post on your blog, but I will continue to be as respectful and nice as I can in spite of your persistently rude and dishonest behavior which often seems aimed at provoking me to stoop to your level of dealings.