Is Mythicism Falsifiable?

Is Mythicism Falsifiable? February 6, 2012

As Neil Godfrey helpfully drew attention to in a comment, there seems to be no agreement among Jesus-mythicists about when the earliest Christian sources were written, which sources are the earliest, or which ones are authentic.

This ought to raise suspicion that mythicism is a preordained conviction in search of any arguments that can be used to try to promote it, rather than a conclusion.

And so I thought it would be interesting to ask whether mythicism is falsifiable. Obviously if one could mind meld with ancient Gospel authors or time travel then in theory it might be. But in terms of the sorts of evidence that historians could ever find, is there any that you think would persuade a mythicist to change his or her mind?

And if not, does that not tell us something important about mythicism?

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  • Dr McGrath’s inability to comprehend a simple question that challenges his vitriolic misperceptions about mythicism has led him into the same fallacious reasoning as Creationists and Holocaust Deniers.

    Michael Shermer warns us that pointing to debates and different views among a particular field of inquiry and using those to conclude that the whole field is inconsistent and therefore invalid is the way creationists and holocaust deniers reason. But we wouldn’t want to make any comparisons along those lines here, would we?

  • Just Sayin’

    Godfrey, why did you Walk Away from the question — is Jesus Mythicism falsifiable? — rather than Stand & Deliver?

    • 1. Dr McGrath was not addressing me or asking me to engage with him at all. I suspect I am one of the last persons he wants even commenting on his blog and responding to anything he says about mythicism. He has said he does not want to even engage with me anymore. (But I know he won’t be able to help himself from doing so at least indirectly.)

      2. As I pointed out in my first paragraph Dr McGrath’s question and assertion is based on a false premise — an inability to read my initial question. It is simply not true that mythicism is founded on contradictory beliefs about this and that, yet that view is the grounds of his assertion.

      3. I reminded him that none other than Michael Shermer reminds us that rejecting a field of understanding as invalid because their are debates within that field of understanding is the way Holocaust Deniers and Creationists argue. Dr McGrath’s premise and argument with mythicism is just like that of Creationists according to Michael Shermer.

      • Just Sayin’

        “Dr McGrath was not addressing me or asking me to engage with him at all.”

        Now now, please stop Walking Away. Dr. McGrath is asking Jesus Mythicists if their beliefs are falsifiable. Are you or are you not a Jesus Mythicist? That being so, kindly Stand & Deliver i.e. explain how your Jesus Mythicism beliefs are falsifiable.

  • beallen0417

    The “rabbits in the Pre-cambrian layer” for mythicism would be a non-forged first person testimony of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth that dated to the proper time period. It’s not difficult to imagine at all. I am curious what the equivalent would be for Jesus’ historicity.

  • No, I have never called myself a Jesus mythicist though I do find mythicism the most plausible conclusion for the evidence. The conclusion is quite falsifiable because all it requires is evidence that Jesus existed to overthrow it. Where is that? All we want is something that meets the same standards for any other established historical figure.

    But you who walk away from identifying yourself and from demanding the same standards of Dr McGrath have failed completely to grasp the nature of Dr McGrath’s reasons for saying it is unfalsifiable.

    He says the reason it is unfalsifiable is because it rests on contradictory foundations. Then to show it any particular mythicist argument is truly falsifiable all Dr McGrath has to do is show any mythicist argument that hangs on two contradictory foundations. He doesn’t do that. All he does is say one mythicist argument says one thing and another says something else therefore the whole idea of mythicism is invalid. That is creationist style thinking — just because evolutionists debate issues evolution is invalid. Just because Historical Jesus scholars debate things we can conclude the historical Jesus idea is invalid.

    When Dr McGrath learns how to use basic logic — something he admits he is not good at when he says he cannot structure arguments in formal propositions — then maybe you will not be so confused either.

  • deleted — added this to the wrong post

  • gjm

    [Disqus is messing me about; apologies if this ends up posted multiple times.]

    Consider the following “weak mythicist” position. “Whether any such
    person as Jesus really lived, and whether if so his life bore any
    resemblance to the one described in the Christian gospels, are like many
    other questions concerning 2000-year-old history: there simply isn’t
    good enough evidence around to justify any degree of confidence about
    their answers, because at the time they weren’t of wide enough interest
    to leave us with a good range of genuinely independent sources.”

    Is this falsifiable? Sure: you’d just need to dig up evidence for the
    life of Jesus that’s comparable to the evidence for that of, say, the
    emperor Tiberius. Or to offer a convincing argument that a small number
    of not-very-independent documents, written decades after his death by
    partisans, are enough to justify confident conclusions (i.e., that such
    documents are much less likely to exist if Jesus were real than if he
    were merely mythical). “But that’s not a reasonable thing to demand:
    that standard of evidence would put almost everyone and almost
    everything from that long ago in the same position of doubt.” Perhaps it
    would; but perhaps that would be good. We really *don’t* have a good
    supply of evidence about many events from that long ago.

    It seems to me that this is a decently falsifiable, not obviously
    falsified, broadly mythicist position. And the observation that no
    reasonable person could expect the sort of evidence about Jesus and his
    (alleged) life that would conclusively falsify “positive” mythicism is,
    if correct, itself evidence for this “weakly mythicist” position.

    Adopting this position does require one to be “weakly mythicist” about
    any number of other alleged historical figures whose lives are supported
    by similarly scanty evidence. That doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

    (Is it actually correct? That’s a separate question, and I don’t know
    enough to have a strong opinion. I’ll content myself with saying that it
    doesn’t seem to be crazy.)

    • EdM01

      Evidence for Emperor Tiberius? We have villas, buildings and temples. We have statues. We have coins — some of them minted by Pontius Pilate, whose existence is proven by a stone from a temple dedicated to Tiberius..

      • I’m not sure that I grasp your point. Are you suggest that we ought to have the same sort of evidence for itinerary exorcists and rabbis as we do for emperors and governors? Even in the case of the Pilate, we have but one inscription mentioning him. Isn’t the appropriate course of action for historians to compare like with like?

        • EdM01

          I was just noting the evidence we have for emperor Tiberius for the challenge to falsify “weak mythicism.” There are many noted historical figures (Hannibal, Socartes, Hillel) for which there is slim to zero evidence. But we usually don’t have endless debates (or as I would call it, cat fights) over whether they existed or not. And for most people, it does not affect them one way or another if a certain historical figure historicity cannot be proven. Jesus, on the other hand, is a whole different ball of wax: an unknown, unknowable Jewish person who lived about that time completely surrounded by a Jesus constructed out of myth. And the subject whether he existed or not is an endless source of debate.

          • If you are saying that the myths shroud the historical figure from view to such an extent as to make it hard to say much if anything about him, then that is the position of mainstream historical scholarship, not that of the internet and self-published mythicists.

          • EdM01

            Yes, that’s exactly right. And the mainstream historians have other tests to see if the characters are likely historical or not. I heard that one test is that of the mythic hero. If I recall correctly, 5 matches or below on this test means the character is likely historical; 12 or above means the character is likely mythical. The Jesus of the New Testament scores at 17 or above. Yet I agree with Christopher Hitchens – there had to have been an historic person similar enough at the center of it all. It’s as if the Christians lionized the person to the extent that the historical Jesus was lost and all we have left is the mythical one.

            And besides, Joel Watts did state in his article on the Huffington Post the exact same thing about Jesus that I just said in my prior post. He also stated in the same article that if we were to find him, we might not like what we find. Perhaps an historical Jesus who is not at all like the mythical Jesus of faith.

          • It sounds as though you have been reading Robert Price. He has a list of hero archetypes, and fails to note that the vast majority either do not fit Jesus, or are applied to him in later sources rather than the very earliest ones, or fit any number of historical figures as well as purely mythical ones.

            I am not sure that the historical data is as completely obscured as you suggest. The presence of details in our early sources which are at odds with later Christian claims suggests that historical memory was not entirely obliterated.


          • EdM01

            I’ve read Robert Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. That’s about it, even though I found it to be very good. But I’ve also read the works of Joseph Campbell, including the last one published posthumously, Thou Art That. It was Joseph Campbell who said the gospels to be myth stories of the hero archetype, even though he did say there was a rabbi Jesus who got crucified by the Romans.
            At least you admit the hero archetypes are applied to Jesus in the later sources! What do the earliest sources say? Let’s see… Paul’s letters are the very earliest and right from the start, Paul says Jesus was an eternally pre-existent divine person, was born of a woman, was descended from David through a patrilineal line, apparently lived an obscure life in humility, instituted the last supper the night he was delivered up, was crucified (by the Jews), was buried properly, and finally rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of God and will come again at the last trump. Not what you call an historical person.
            As for the early historical details that you refer to, I’d like to know where they are. Because I do not see them either in the New Testament or in outside Pagan and Jewish authors. And when I get a chance, I will peruse Joel Watt’s book on the gospel of Mark — I’ve seen the blurb at Amazon where Joel is represented as concluding that the past was rewritten by the author of Mark to reclaim the present and regain the future. So I still disagree with you on whether historical memory was obliterated or not.

          • Just because Paul believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and thus to have pre-existed in the manner depicted in Jewish works such as the Similitudes of Enoch, does not negate the other information: his belief that he had been born into the line of David, that he had been crucified and buried, etc., as well as that Paul himself had met Jesus’ brother. The historicity of such details is not nullified just because Paul also had religious beliefs about Jesus that are ahistorical.

          • EdM01

            Ahistorical, eh? In which case Paul was telling lies about the man!!! For if James was normatively Jewish, so was Jesus. Didn’t I tell you 19 days ago there had to have been one similar enough at the core of the whole myth???
            Paul tells some anothe lies about him: that he was condemned by the “rulers of this age” meaning demons. That would imply a mythical Jesus. Even the fact that Jesus was crucified could have been a lie from Paul’s mouth… Josephus appears to be sceptical whether Jesus was crucified in the first place, or maybe he survived it (the latter extremely doubtful), because he said Pilate “condemned him to the Stauros” (pole, T-pole, cross) and then he shows up again the third day alive (and in full strength) again, or as Gunnar Samuelsson put it literally, “having a third day alive [and in full strength] again” (from Crucifixion in Antiquity, brackets mine)

          • I’m not sure what your point was, but it was a very popular view that demons worked through human beings. And so whether “rulers” means “human rulers” or “demons,” neither suggests that the crucified individual was purely mythical.

  • gjm

    Oops, sorry about the messed-up formatting of the above.

  • Andrew Dowling

    James, my hats off to you for taking this on. I find mythicists have the same quasi-fundamentalist tendencies about their beliefs that creationists do . . .they simply ignore evidence that doesn’t fit their worldview.