Mythicism around the Blogosphere

Mythicism around the Blogosphere June 8, 2012

First place in this post has to go to the recent post on this topic on the blog Unreasonable Faith. Here’s a lengthy quote that is insightful and will surely lead those interested in this topic to click through and read more:

At one point in the interview, Price suggests that one letter mentioning Jesus would be enough to destroy the Christ myth theory. I like Price, but this seems to betray a lack of self-awareness. He is on record as disagreeing with the consensus dating and authorship of nearly every piece of text within the New Testament. What exactly could an archaeologist find that Price could not argue is misinterpreted, interpolated or an outright forgery?

Of course, these arguments would be quite plausible. It’s like the Birthers who suggested that if Obama would just produce his long form birth certificate they’d all just go away. When such a thing was produced they proclaimed it an obvious forgery. Such forgeries do occur, but did anyone really believe that the Birthers would give any certificate a chance?

IIRC, the philosopher Brian Keeley once suggested that some theories – conspiracy theories mainly – may remain unwarranted even if they are historically accurate. They are unwarranted because they require so much skepticism towards the evidence that they essentially destroy the process of history. Belief in them can never be warranted under the standard rules of history, and we’re not ready to give up on history just yet.

I’m wondering if the Christ Myth theory hasn’t reached that point, with its tendency to say that every story about Jesus is really derived from some other story and that every apparent claim is really a cipher for some other claim. Is there any ancient historical evidence that cannot be explained in this fashion?

That’s not all that has been of interest in the blogosphere related to mythicism in recent days. Ben Witherington has been interviewing Bart Ehrman on his blog about his recent book, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth Here are links to PART ONE, PART TWO, and PART THREE.

Finally, Joseph Hoffmann has a post “celebrating” a hundred years of mythicism. It draws attention to works which show why one of Bart Ehrman’s recent claims needs to be qualified. It may be true that no scholar has written a book recently directly and specifically on the topic of whether Jesus existed. But there have been books on that topic written in the past. The Case (pun intended) in point is what Hoffmann offers in his post: a quote from The historicity of Jesus: a criticism of the contention that Jesus never lived, a statement of the evidence for his existence, an estimate of his relation to Christianity, a 1912 book by Shirley Jackson Case. The points Case makes are every bit as relevant to mythicism today, since mythicism does not really have any new arguments. But the case for Jesus’ historicity is improved both by the more rigorous character of contemporary scholarship in this area, by the greater scholarly avoidance of parallelomania in our day and age, and by the textual and archaeological finds that have come to light in the mean time.

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  • I am periodically asked by some internet apologist “What evidence would it take to get you to believe in the resurrection?”  I usually reply that in my knowledge and experience, miracle stories are invariably the product of human foibles like superstition, gullibility, ignorance and prevarication so I would need to personally experience a miracle in order to change the background knowledge against which I evaluate miracle claims.

    The most common response I get to this is “I don’t think you would believe even then” which usually brings the discussion to a halt.  In essence, the apologist seems to be saying “I don’t have good evidence for the resurrection, but since a skeptic might not accept good evidence, I am justified in believing in the resurrection on lousy evidence.”  The apologist is right that I might just interpret my miracle experience as a sign that I was losing my mind, but I think the real problem is that the apologist doesn’t want to talk about the possibility that his reasons for believing in the resurrection aren’t the best ones possible.

    Unreasonable Faith’s reaction to Price seems to me to be a variation of this apologetic dodge.  Rather than addressing the possibility that there might be better evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus than we have, he sidesteps it by asserting that Price wouldn’t believe the better evidence if we had it.  While it is entirely possible that Price might try to explain away better evidence, it is still worth discussing what that evidence might be in order to identify the shortcomings in the evidence we have.

    I think that the problem for the historicists is a simple one.  The historical Jesus was likely as not an obscure itinerant preacher who went unnoticed for most of his life beyond a small group of illiterate peasants.  To the extent that he drew more attention than that, he was just another troublemaker put to death by the Roman Empire.  There is no reason to expect such a man to have left a discernible trace in the historical record and there is no reason to expect that we should be able to establish his existence.  As a result, there is no way for the historian to argue by analogy to any known cases.

    I am doubtful that mythicism is ever going to be much more than an intriguing possibility, but I don’t see how we can hope to have anything more than provisional confidence in the existence of a man whose life we wouldn’t have expected to leave a mark in the historical record.  We are never going to find the kind of evidence that usually makes us confident about the existence of someone in the ancient world because Jesus’ life wasn’t likely to produce such evidence.

    • Earl Doherty

      And yet this “obscure itinerant preacher” did leave a discernible trace in the historical record–as historicists see it. He was turned into a part of God, regarded as the savior of humanity and preached as rising from his grave! And all within a space of time which was virtually overnight. What bigger trace would you want than that?!

      Right there, the finger is on the impossibility of such a scenario. No one who holds this view of the historical Jesus has ever been able to explain how he went from mundane obscurity to Godhead. We certainly don’t find the explanation in the epistolary record of earliest Christianity, since Paul & Co. never even clearly mention the guy, let alone explain how and why they raised such a nonentity to such a cosmic level. I simply cannot understand the reasoning of those who put forward the “obscure itinerant preacher” interpretation and then turn to a passage like Colossians 1:15-20 without the slightest tinge of perplexity.

      The evidence for the non-existence of an earthly Jesus is right there in the epistles for all to see. You just have to take off the Gospel-colored glasses and let go the unsupportable and unworkable rearguard action that has reduced Jesus to a nonentity as a last-ditch effort to salvage some face from 1900 years of the whole western world being duped like nothing else in history.

      Earl Doherty

      • Earl, the experience of the resurrection would seem to be a pretty good explanation as to why Christians came to attach a particular theological significance to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There’s nothing impossible about it at all, as long as you accept that people who have religious experiences can regard them as being true and of transcending importance. A quick read of William James should clear that up for you.

        PS: Did you read the link to the Guardian website? I’m genuinely interested to know why you won’t share the specifics of your academic credentials?

        • Paul,

          I agree that the resurrection could explain why Christians attached theological significance to the life of death of Jesus of Nazareth.  The sticking point for me is that visionary experiences of an exalted resurrected Christ don’t necessitate an actual historical Jesus of Nazareth.  The visionary experience could cause you to believe in the historical person without any other evidence and it is not clear to me that our earliest sources had any other evidence.  

          I would disagree with Earl, however, that this constitutes “evidence 
          for  the non-existence of an earthly Jesus (emphasis added).”  It is merely a reason why the evidence we have might not be sufficient.

          • Hi Vinny,

            Earl seems to be making the “impossibility” of the historical Jesus becoming the Christian Christ into a major objection to the historicist case. I notice that Neil did something similar in an earlier discussion. I suppose they have to raise an objection here, because otherwise the historicist case looks really very reasonable.

            My point was aimed at Earl’s objection to a historical Jesus:  The experience of the resurrection – however we choose to explain or rationalise this – would seem like an excellent explanation of why Christianity started along the path towards a divine Jesus (as Steph points out, this did not happen overnight). So I think that this particular objection to a historical Jesus doesn’t work. While I don’t think that the resurrection experience quite proves that Jesus is historical, the way early Christians think about it make an awful lot more sense if there was a historical figure there to be resurrected.

          • Paul,

            I think that the historicist case is perfectly reasonable;  I just don’t see it as being all that well evidenced. 

            If we are trying to figure out what happened in an ancient battle for which the sources are sparse, we can compare the data with ancient battles that are much better documented and understood  I think that gives us some objective basis to say what kind of things were and were not likely to have occurred.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any ancient religions whose origins are well understood or well documented.  When considering alternative scenarios for the origins of Christianity, I don’t see that we have much more than our subjective feelings about what makes sense and what doesn’t and I don’t think that mythicists generally do any better job of dealing with the problem than historicists do.

      • Actually, it is mythicists who create a paradox because they are unwilling when it comes to it to follow the antisemitic roots of mythicism to their logical conclusion. If, as mythicists claim, the origins of the Christ cult had nothing to do with Judaism, then all is explicable in terms of a historical figure at its core – India, for instance, is full of obscure itinerant preachers who claim to be a god, and some of whose followers believe them. It is the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus who is claimed to be the human anointed one descended from David according to Jewish expectations, eventually (not in the earliest period, but significantly later) being viewed as “part of God,” that is paradoxical. But it is not a problem for mythicism, as long as it is true to its roots and emphases and doesn’t mind substituting random cults where the evidence points to Jewish roots.

        I think the antisemitism that has historically been inherent in and a driving force behind Jesus- mythicism ought to be talked about more frequently than it typically is.

  • Robert Cargill shared a link that I think is also relevant – 

    Reminded me of JDers who can be a bit cagey about who they are and what credentials they have (just where did Doherty take his degree again?) I’ve wondered if at least some of the multiple IDs I’ve seen here and elsewhere might actually be a single person… There can’t be that many people swallowing this guff, surely? 

  • Steph

    Nothing would persuade me, not even a 21st century miracle, to believe in the resurrection of a first century prophet teacher because I think we have accounted for the traditions sufficiently and effectively with critical historical research. I also think we have sufficiently demonstrated that there was that man and he lived his life believing he had a mission from God (to bring back Jews to the Law of God). He also believed his death would be vindicated by God and it wasn’t. He was wrong. And we have demonstrated how following his crucifixion, he was remembered in different ways, the traditions developed and controversies over his identity grew and we have accounted for the development of Jesus into a divine man. A lot of critical scholarship is devoted to how tradition developed from a Jewish prophet to a divine man or as Doherty prefers, how he went from mundane obscurity(?!) to Godhead. The Jesus of History to the Jesus of Dogma. I’m astonished Doherty is so out of touch. Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: it is the title of a book by Maurice Casey in 1991. Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ (1988). Et cetera Secondly, this did not take place ‘overnight’. It took some two generations, as well as the massive transition from Judaism into the Gentile world. Thirdly, Jesus was not‘obscure’ in his own lifetime: he was only too well-known in Israel, otherwise he would not have been pursued to his death. Fourthly, even the brief summary above perpetuates the same mythicist mistakes, such as that “Paul & Co. never even clearly mention the guy”.

    As Morton Smith said in 1986: “The myth theory is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the ‘silence’ of Paul….In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”

    • Steph

      As the good Karl Marx used to say: “de omnibus dubitandum”.  The devil is in the details.  Hallelujah.

  • Andrew

    “Actually, it is mythicists who create a paradox because they are unwilling when it comes to it to follow the antisemitic roots of mythicism to their logical conclusion.”
    Huh? We have a well-documented 2,000 year history of Christian anti-semitism, beginning right there within the NT. The whole raison d’tre of Christianity was their delusional and self-serving idea that the Jews had abandoned God and God had abandoned them, but the “righteous Gentiles” were now the Elect. Justin Martyr called Christians “the true Israel.” The supposedly Jewish roots of the Jesus character is a very recent preoccupation, something that went virtually unnoticed by Christian theologians until the 20th Century. 

    • Andrew, unless your point is that it is OK for mythicism to be built on the foundation of earlier Christian antisemitism, then I am afraid you did not make your point clearly or effectively.

  • Andrew

    “I also think we have sufficiently demonstrated that there was that man and he lived his life believing he had a mission from God (to bring back Jews to the Law of God).”

    Nothing has been demonstrated. We have a bunch of anonymous ancient texts about a miracle man. That’s the main source for the life of Jesus. Remove the miracles, and you don’t have “the historical Jesus” — you have no reason for the texts to exist at all, as Strauss observed back in 1835. 

    Similar texts about Krishna are dismissed as myth by Christians with a mere shrug. 

    • Steph

      Of course not.  Excellent contradiction.

    • Similar texts about Krishna are dismissed as myth by Christians with a mere shrug.

      There should be a sort of swear box Jesus deniers have to pay into whenever they make an unsubstantiated comparison between Jesus and mythological figures. A pound a time – or a dollar fifty if you’re American?

      Yes, most Christians might well see texts about Krishna as purely mythical. On the other hand, most Christians would not dismiss texts about the Buddha, Muhammad, or Guru Nanak as purely mythical. They might not agree with the beliefs about these figures held by Buddhists, Muslims, or Sikhs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think such people existed.

      So who is Jesus more like – Krishna or one of these historical figures who founded religions? 

      You seem to think that Jesus is as purely mythical figure, just like Krishna so perhaps you can tell me – when did the Kurukshetra war take place (you know when Krishna was incarnate on earth as Arjuna’s chariooter)? Within how many years of this date was the Bhagavad Gita composed? Was it 30-50 years, as is the case for the synoptic gospels? Was there anybody claiming to have hung out with Krishna’s brother, writing within 20-30 years of the battle? Was Krishna being referred to as a historical figure by non-Hindus within a century of the battle? 

      I think the answer to these last questions is “nope”. You owe us a pound Andrew.

  • Katherinetrammell

    In my POV if the Jesus character had not been so much like so many other god-man characters, and there was some originality attached to this story, I might be inclined to believe in the Jesus story. But, Jesus is not original. He’s just one of many that was finally chosen as the god-man for political and economic reasons.

    • Steph

      Brilliant.  Explains everything.