Stuff Mythicists Say: “Q Was Real, Jesus Wasn’t”

Stuff Mythicists Say: “Q Was Real, Jesus Wasn’t” September 10, 2012

Mythicists say a lot of ludicrous things, and perhaps it would be useful to highlight some of the more astonishing and laughable ones from time to time.

Mythicists like Earl Doherty will accept the existence of Q – a hypothetical source the existence of which is deduced from the common material shared between Matthew and Luke – and even the even more hypothetical stratification of this source into layers by scholars like John Kloppenborg.

But they will then go on to try to argue that the sayings in this source, which are now only to be found embedded in Christian sources which agree in attributing those sayings to Jesus, have no connection with the figure to whom both Matthew and Luke attribute them.

They thus try to use something about which there is (despite it remaining the consensus position) a fair amount of dispute and discussion, in order to argue against something about which there is, because of the strong evidence, unanimity among historians.

Anyone who is not already predisposed to embrace mythicism will find the very attempt to do that rather silly, and will find simply ludicrous the suggestion that one could use such an argument to argue that it is more likely that mainstream historians are all badly mistaken while mythicists are correct.

But it is important not to simply ignore the mythicists, any more than the evolution-deniers and Holocaust-deniers and climate change deniers and the anti-vaccination crowd. Denialists use many of the same tactics, and knowing what those tactics are can help prevent these memes – which oppose scholarship and pervert critical thinking into selective skepticism – from spreading. Because these aren’t people who’ve put the Q-Tip in too far (if you’ll forgive the pun), but who have ways of thinking which imitate those of scholarship and critical thinking just enough to dupe the gullible. The only antidote to them is true critical thinking – which forces you to not merely be skeptical of what those you are already inclined to disagree with have to say, but to ask whether you would find the arguments you currently use persuasive if you did not already adhere to the worldview that you do.

And so it is important to remember here from time to time “Stuff Mythicists Say” and to comment on it. And having set the topic aside for quite some time, I will try to make sure not to neglect it entirely.

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  • Geoffrey Tolle

    Might I point out that referring to the views of Mythicists as a block is a bit like saying that all Christians share the same opinions. There are some who believe and can show some support for the idea that the entire origins of Christianity are based on evolved stories and… yes… myths like Dionysus, Joshua, Osiris. There are others who believe and can show some support for the idea that the “New Testament” is so full of internal contradictions due to early christian cult syncretism, consolidation, and redaction that it is no longer possible to tease out which Jesus was historical.

    Doherty’s points about Q are that we possess documents and can make educated guesses about how they developed. We have stories within those documents and we can make educated guesses about how they evolved. What we don’t have is independent evidence for the historicity of any of these stories. Similar arguments can and are being made about the historicity of Mohammed (“Koran”), Moroni (“Book of Mormon”), and Krishna (“Bhagavad Ghita”).

    • Might I point out that historians can also make logical and well-substantiated inferences from the texts we have not only about the sources used to create them, but the historicity of persons and events recorded in them. Might I also point out that the evidence for a historical Jesus differs from a case like Moroni so drastically that I can only assume that you are not familiar with historical reasoning about one or both of them.

      • Geoffrey Tolle

        Ah, the “assume” word again. I admit I use it but I always have pangs about that after watching the court appearence episode of the “Odd Couple”. As for Moroni and Jesus, I have read of both of them or I would not have brought them up without some form of qualification.

        In one case, you have one known historically-living individual who claimed to have actually interacted with the angel Moroni and several witnesses (honestly don’t remember or care how many) who saw the golden tablets that Moroni brought to Smith before they were taken back to their eternal storage place. Those witnesses were also historically-living individuals. As for whether any or all of them would lie about this, remember that Smith (and, I suspect, one or two of his witnesses) willingly (or so we are told) died to defend the faith when a lynch mob descended on them. To an apologist, this is enough evidence to accept Moroni as historical fact. To a mythicist, this is fairly typical religious development and is myth.

        With Jesus, we have three anonymous “witnesses” (none of whom can actually be historically confirmed) who wrote successively derivative (rather than independent) accounts of the life of Jesus and one “witness” who wrote a radically different account. All four resurrection accounts (arguably the most important aspect of Jesus’s life to Christians) vary in understandably but radically different aspects that directly contradict each other: numbers of witnesses, “people” in the tomb, messages after the discovery, etc.

        A telling point to the historicity of these accounts is that the most important and really only independent related documents – the writings of Paul (though most, if not all, are anonymous and/or pseudepigraphic) – confirms essentially none of the historical information. A case can be made that Paul was interested only in the theological aspects of Jesus, not the historical, but, still, you’d have thought that a little history would have crept in if only by accident.

        Along these lines, if the historicity of Jesus were firmly established by the Gospels, then why did alternate views of Jesus, such as modalism and Arianism, arise? Surely the whole flesh / spirit issue would have been a matter of historical record and, yet, apparently it wasn’t. Thus, both the historian and the mythicist have to ask what available information falls within the realm of history and what falls within the realm of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proofs. Only the apologist is likely to accept historicity as is.

        That brings us back to the point of mythicism. Whatever the historical core of Jesus was (whether as a Galilean born in ~0 CE, as a jewish messianic figure born in 100 BCE, or as a god-myth) much of what is claimed about Jesus is mythical. That is the point of the mythicist school of analysis. Did George Washington exist? History. Did he cut down a cherry tree? Myth. Was he president of the US? Yes. Did he toss a coin across the Delaware? No (probably).

        When historians make logical and well-substantiated inferences from the texts we have, they do so on the basis that the text doesn’t contradict itself, that the text doesn’t contradict other texts, that the text isn’t obviously mythical, and that the inference is subject to change should more related data be introduced into the analysis. Analysis of king lists is a perfect example. They are generally accepted at face value at first. Then they compared to other lists, events, etc. to see if the list makes sense. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t – even internally. Royal ancestories are another example. They are usually taken at relatively face value at first but that tends to stop at the first divine ancestor. Tax records (within the limits that most tax records are at least partially ficticious), economic transactions, and even marriage contracts are among the strongest historical evidence because, frankly, almost no body fakes the historical information on them. If fact, the better the historical evidence, the less likely any transactional falsifications will be found. Theological records, on the other hand, are routinely falsified. That puts them in the category of myth first only to be confirmed as history by extraordinary proofs. That’s all many mythicists do. They treat the Gospels as any religious text, subject to the same rules of authentication as the “Bhagavad Ghita”, the “Myth Cycle of Ba’al”, the “Book of Coming Forth by Day”, the “Popul Vuh”, the “Koran”, or the “Dead Sea Scrolls”. How can that be considered an unreasonable burden of proof for authenticating the Gospels?

        • Much of what you have written above fits the evidence poorly. Historians have not concluded that most of Paul’s letters are inauthentic, and in those letters Paul mentions meeting Jesus’ brother, as well as his status as a person, a Jew, and allegedly a descendant of David. While anyone who has investigated a claim to noble descent will know that they don’t always pan out, there is no serious doubt that Paul was referring to a human being and was in a position to know whether the individual in question had lived and died. That is not comparable to a single individual saying that they received revelations from an angel.

          Mythicism is a denial that there is a figure at the core of the later depictions, legends, and myths. If your view is that Jesus was a Galilean who was crucified and whose followers thought he was the Messiah, and much of the rest is myth, that is not mythicism. It is a more skeptical stance than some historians adopt, but it is still radically different from the form of denialism known as mythicism, which claims that when Paul refers to Jesus’ birth, Davidic descent, bleeding, dying, and everything else, he was referring to events in a celestial realm and not to things believed to have unfolded in history. If you reject that as nonsense, then you are not a mythicist, but on the skeptical end of mainstream history’s view of Jesus. And in my opinion, being skeptical but within the range of what historians have concluded is preferable to adopting a stance that historians consistently find not merely unpersuasive but in many cases beyond the pale into the domain of crackpot theories.

          • beallen0417

            All Jews of Jesus’ time in theory were equally likely to be descended from any Jew at the purported time of David. Dr. McGrath is already aware of this, yet somehow thinks that “descent from David” means something other than “Jew.” He also specifically misrepresents the Pauline author, who nowhere and never states that he met “Jesus’ brother.”

            When Ken Ham repeats discredited lies, it shows he is not an honest actor.

            If Dr. McGrath would stop repeating the lie that the Pauline author states that he met “Jesus’ brother,” it might make the idea that nothing can change his mind a little less obvious.

          • Geoffrey Tolle

            Simply stated, your definition of mythicism is incorrect and that information comes from within the mythicist camp itself. Again – mythicism is not a belief in no historical background but a belief that any historical information is indistiguishable from the mythical. There is an important difference between the two definitions and it is both rational and supportable. As such mythicism supports a range of beliefs from 0% historicity to, oh say, 5 – 10% historicity. Again indistiguishability is the key not possible historicity. If you choose to continue to use a definition created by people outside the field then you are either comparing apples to oranges or committing the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. And, perhaps, that’s all this is.

            A more modern example of mythicism is the legend of John Henry. This is generally accepted as being myth (or legend which is essentially the same). Yet scholars who have studied the legend have found possible historical origins for “John Henry”. They are, however, unable to distinguish between the several possible origins (including that he was originally a white man) and none of them are very strong. As such, the John Henry legend may reflect history but, because of its indistinguishability, remain myth. Christ Myth Theory is similar.

            As for CMT being in “the domain of crackpot theories” – Again, I point
            out the standard of history and law in the US is burden of proof: extraordinary
            claims require extraordinary proofs. The existence of a god-man who performed miracles in ancient Galilee is an extraordinary claim. The existence of a mundane rebel religious leader whose teachings started a major world religion are not so extraordinary but there are several possible historical figures to choose from. The current level of “proof” of his existence, even historically, barely meets the standards of american civil law (reasonable belief) and, then, only because it is so deeply ingrained in most Christians and Jews. Viewed objectively, CMT is actually fairly mainstream while Christ Belief is in “the domain of crackpot theories”.

            You know, it just occurred to me that I’ve been guilty of incorrect definitions myself. Christ myth is actually pretty much the same as historical Jesus. It is the theory that there was an historical Jesus but not a mystical / supernatural Christ. Jesus myth is the theory that, if an historical Jesus existed, then any historical features of that Jesus cannot be reliably pulled out from the accreted mythical features. Sorry about that. Years of equating Jesus (the man) and Christ (the supernatural savior) have made even the best of scholars (and I am not) a little lax in that area. I find myself making that mistake frequently.

            It’s too bad that you’re bound and determined to see CMT (perhaps better as JMT) as a crackpot theory. Some of your other blog-posts (and your love of “Dr. Who”) suggest that you’re actually a fairly reasonable and inquisitive person off this topic. Oh well, it took me years to move from mythical Christ / historical Jesus camp to the mythical Jesus camp and that was only by listening to reasoned scholarship of Dr. Robert M. Price and his very informative “BibleGeek” podcast.

          • You clearly have not read Earl Doherty – and that is understandable, and it isn’t worth your time to do so. What Robert Price has come up with, where everything is creative concoction from the Jewish Scriptures, also faces problems. The view you outline sounds more like what Thomas Thompson emphasizes, that Jesus is shrouded from view by the types to which he is connected. But Thompson does not accept the label “mythicist” or related terms for his viewpoint.

  • What would you call people who think Jesus may have existed but are fairly sure that the actions attributed to him the gospels are, for a large part, legendary?
    I’m fairly agnostic about the existence of Jesus. Did he exist? Maybe. Even probably. Did he walk on water, or rise from the dead? Probably not. Did he remove a sword from a stone, or rob the rich to feed the poor? Yeah, you get my drift.

    • The viewpoint that there is some and perhaps much legend in the Gospels is what is known as mainstream historical scholarship. Rudolf Bultmann went the furthest, saying that we can’t be certain about anything other that the bare fact of Jesus’ existence. What most who quote him forget or ignore is that Bultmann said this at least in part to shield the Jesus of Christian preaching from the buffeting waves of historical criticism. Be that as it may, most historians find there to be a handful of bedrock facts which simply would not have been invented if they did not reflect historical reality, such as the crucifixion. The expectation regarding the Davidic Messiah (note Carrier’s complaints about my specificity – as though it were a matter of indiference who or what was being said to be anointed!) was of a figure who would restore the line of David to the throne. It is possible to insist that early Christians invented that, and yet still claimed that this Jesus was the Davidic anointed one, only if you have ceased doing what historians must do – asking what is mosy likely – and are satisfied to adopt a less probable scenario merely on the grounds that people make up all kinds of weird stuff. That isn’t historical scholarship. But the conclusion that there is a significiant overlay of legend and dogma in our sources is the conclusion that historians have drawn. That isn’t mythicism. Mythicism is taking the things that are straightforwardly historical, like Paul’s reference to Jesus having been born of a woman like all human beings, and born under the Law and thus Jewish, and that he was “of David according to the flesh”, and suggesting that he could have been talking about events that occurred on the celestial firmament.

      • Thanks for the response – this is good for me to continue thinking about.

      • It is hard for me to see “born of a woman” as straightforwardly historical. Historicists are always claiming that Paul doesn’t give many details about the historical Jesus because they were all so well known that he didn’t need to mention them. If he needed to mention that Jesus had a mother, doesn’t that raise the possibility that there was some question about the issue?

        • If one adopts the selective hyper-skepticism of the mythicist, then of course, everything Paul doesn’t say supports mythicism, and everything that he does say supports mythicism. But why anyone should adopt that approach is an important question to ask first, since there are no preordained conclusions that one cannot draw by that means.

          • Yes. I’m a bad boy and I know it.

      • Do historians ask what is most likely? Or what is most plausible? These terms are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t. Probability requires the quantifiable. Plausibility requires only credulity. This is a serious question, and I’m not sure there’s a clear answer. But it is the difference between cumulative knowledge and rhetoric.

        • Plausibility alone is not enough. Many configurations of the evidence can be plausible. If we have several competing plausible scenarios, and no evidence that makes one of them more likely, then one will have no choice but to be agnostic about that point, barring new evidence or some new consideration that changes our perception of the matter.

          The issue with mythicism is not merely that it presents a scenario that is unlikely and claims that it is most likely. Much of what mythicists say doesn’t even reach the level of plausibility. One could say that any text’s references to an individual’s birth, genealogy, etc. refer to celestial realities and not earthly ones, and who can falsify such faith by pointing out that words are not so infinitely flexible?

          • How do you measure probability here then? Bearing in mind that probability, by definition, requires objectively measurable quantities.

            “Level of plausibility” is an inherently subjective measure. If that is counted for anything then agnosticism is demanded. This is the strength of Thompson’s position. It eliminates the clash of opinions you are here giving undue weight to.

          • I disagree that evaluating something as more likely than not necessarily involves measurable quantities. Even Richard Carrier, who advocates applying Bayesian logic to matters of history, accepts that, while one needs to assign a number to one’s estimation, we are not in a position to actually run a test to assess something is 73.6% likely as opposed to 73.4%. We rely on human assessment, just as we do when we ask a jury to assess whether it is more likely that the accused is innocent or guilty.

            If Thompson’s view is accurately described as agnosticism because of an inability to get behind the reality of cultural memory, I would suggest that that is a conclusion that applies to most figures throughout most of history, and not only Jesus. Most historical figures, particularly in antiquity, are related to such types. But Thompson has said quite clearly that connection with such types doesn’t demonstrate ahistoricity, for that reason.

            Mythicism is not the stance of historical agnosticism. It is the claim that Jesus can be asserted to have been a purely celestial figure in the thinking of Paul and other early Christians, that that viewpoint is the one which the evidence supports. Presumably you would agree that such claims are bunk?

          • “Mythicism is not the stance of historical agnosticism. It is the claim that Jesus can be asserted to have been a purely celestial figure in the thinking of Paul and other early Christians, that that viewpoint is the one which the evidence supports.”

            So you are saying that George Albert Wells has never at any stage been a mythicist?

            And that Robert M. Price is not a mythicist after all?

            And that R. Joseph Hoffmann never at any stage of his academic career ever hinted at any leanings towards favoring mythicism?

            And why do you call me a mythicist when my view is no different from Thompson’s as I have pointed out many, many times?

          • Carrier isn’t using “likely” or “probable” in quite the sense you are, and neither of you are using it as strictly as I am. Which is fine in all three cases, in the intended context, since the terms are more than flexible enough to cover it. But the questions I’m asking require a little stricter definition, and the more colloquial uses are at least insufficient, if not inappropriate. We’re talking past each other a bit, but more on that below.

            A more egregious error, for the moment, is the consideration of how many people we need to be agnostic about. I am here discussing method, consideration of conclusions has no place in that. When we consider results in discussing theory we are engaging in circular reasoning. Rather method should be determined independent of application, and only then do we find out what such a method implies. If that means we need to be agnostic about one person or one billion, then so be it. That our conclusions might make us uncomfortable shouldn’t factor into the matter at all.

            Which brings me back to the top. I am increasingly inclined to follow the lead of likes of Hayden White or Keith Jenkins, in viewing history as fundamentally an autobiographical fiction. The value of history in this view lies in its utility, and it is created with the aim of persuading other people to use it in their own fictions, not an eye toward an impossible ideal of accuracy. A sort of contrast to science as conventionally conceived in that it produces a cumulative *story*, not cumulative knowledge.

            If you’re familiar with White or Jenkins, or other post-modernist philosophers of history of a similar bent, I’d love to hear how you would respond to the suggestion that history is an evolving story of the present, that just happens to be about the past. If you’re not, I’m ill-equipped to attempt to explain their line of reasoning, so we might have to part company on this topic.

            **Editted for bad grammar**

          • I appreciate the points of postmodernist historians and philosophers of history, and their influence has begun to be seen, e.g. in Tony Le Donne’s treatments of historiography in relation to the figure of Jesus.

            I think it is important to distinguish between agnosticism about the matter of a historical Jesus, or Socrates, or Hillel, or John the Baptist, and mythicism of the sort one typically encounters, which says that Jesus either probably or certainly was invented based on earlier myths or Scriptures. It is the latter claim that I find to be absolute bunk, incompatible with the evidence. When it comes to agnosticism, I may disagree about whether such agnosticism is justified given the evidence, but I respect the recognition that uncertainty about the evidence does not somehow render the case for invention more likely by default.

          • Geoffrey Tolle

            “Mythicism… is the claim that Jesus can be asserted to have been a purely celestial figure… Presumably you would agree that such claims are bunk?”

            Absolutely not! The “Gospel of Mark” fairly clearly depicts Jesus as a man-god walking on the Earth. The whole sequence of tales of Jesus moving back and forth across the Sea of Galilee and walking on water can be easily interpreted in the light of contemporary greek and jewish religious beliefs as a man-god moving in and out of the realm of the dead (the sea was depicted as the gateway to Sheol / Hades in both cultures) and finally ascending a mountain to reign over / teach believers (the sermon on the mount). There is little question that that Jesus would have been seen as a celestial figure though not “purely” so.

            Then there is the whole Flying Jesus of “Luke” 4:29-30 which ties into the Jesus as Lucifer of the “Book of Revelation” and “Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (19:2-3); the archons and dynamos of “Romans” 8:38; and the whole gnostic redeemer belief system of early Christianity. There can be little question that that view of Jesus was also a celestial figure.

            Sure, there was the mundane image of Jesus in the gospels but there were also very strong celestial Jesus images embedded in the gospels both before and after the depiction of Jesus’s death.

            So, no, I can’t even begin to concede that claims that Jesus was perceived throughout the NT as a celestial figure both before and after his death were bunk. Such claims are both wrong and twist the text in an effort to deceive.

          • I suggest that you re-read the Gospel of Mark as what it originally was, an expression of a Jewish Messianic movement, rather than reading into it either the later Nicene dogmas of Christian orthodoxy or a wider Greco-Roman context which was not the initial matrix of Christianity. I know that there are mainstream scholars who find a Christology of divinity in the Gospel of Mark. But they are not the majority, and if there is anywhere that mainstream scholarship could be suspected of being influenced by Christian commitments, it is this. The earliest evidence is so much at odds with what Christians came to say about Jesus, that it is unimaginable that it was fabricated by Christians who held such views of Jesus, and that is but one of many arguments suggesting that the Gospels and the letters of Paul are not devoid of historical information.

          • Geoffrey Tolle

            Yet, when you have two explicit geneologies that explicitly contradict each other and contradict the explicit statement that Mary was a virgin and you have Mark who completely ignored a geneology, what historicity do you have?

            When you have four resurrections and numerous resurrections appearances that both explicitly and implicitly contradict each other, what historicity do you have?

            When you have James called the brother of the Christ (not even Jesus), Judas called the brother of James (therefore brother of the Christ?), various members of the early Church calling each other brother, Ananias calling Saul his brother (Acts 9:17), what historicity do you have regarding blood relations?

            When you have word-for-word dialogs of Judas’s meeting with the Pharisees or Jesus’s prayer time in Gethsemane and no clue who might have been the witness to them (especially when, in the latter case, a lot of effort was made to make it clear that there were no witnesses), what historicity do you have?

            When no surviving roman or jewish records provide any historical support for the Christ despite numerous information on more obscure Joshua / Jesus’s from 100 BCE to 100+ CE, what support for history do you have?

            Those sorts of issues return any historicity of Jesus, despite the many scholarly books on the subject, back to the realm of merely plausible (and, sometimes, even further back into simple myth or religiously-motivated propaganda). ‘Nuff said.

          • This comment seems to reflect the big problem with mythicism – lack of familiarity with the primary source data. The contradictory genealogies in Matthew and Luke make points about alleged Jesus’ ancestry, and other theological points. They do not in any way seem to be arguments for his humanity, because as far as we can tell, no one had yet suggested that he was anything other than a human being.

            Mythicists also play fast and loose with words, favoring other meanings of them that do not fit the context. A case in point is the suggestion that referring to “James the brother of the Lord” could simply mean that he was a “brother in the Lord.” But we have no evidence of the two phrases being synonymous, and if they were, then it would be hard to explain how that phrase would distinguish James from Peter. Again, the primary evidence and relevant linguistic and grammatical data are being ignored in favor of a predetermined “conclusion.”

            The evidence for Jesus is comparable to that for John the Baptist, slightly better than Hillel, slightly worse perhaps than for Socrates. None of that demonstrates his ahistoricity. It just illustrates what is true of most figures of the sort that the historical Jesus was – we do not have the same kind of evidence that we have for the powerful and wealthy. Only someone poorly informed about ancient history would find this surprising, much less think it demonstrates the ahistoricity of an itinerant rabbi or messianic claimant.

      • Andrew

        “Be that as it may, most historians find there to be a handful of bedrock facts which simply would not have been invented if they did not reflect historical reality, such as the crucifixion.”

        Dr. McGrath,

        If that’s the case, then historians are more credulous than they should be, and underestimate the imagination and ingenuity of ancient religious cults. What’s inconsistent is to say that Christians made up all sorts of things to justify and bolster their faith, but could not have made up the crucifixion, because that was supposedly too embarrassing to invent. I’m not sure how anyone can make this claim, since the texts speak of “Christ crucified” as the greatest thing that’s ever happened — it freed people from “the Law” and opened a gateway to God. Something so desirous betrays invention rather than history: a religious group desired to be free from “the (Jewish) Law,” and thus invented the crucifixion as a means of obtaining that position, not the other way around.

        • There’s not a lot that needs to be said in response to this comment, since if you think that mainstream historians are on the whole credulous, then you can’t have read much in the way of what historians have written, particularly about the figure of Jesus.

          Mythicists like to ignore what it meant to claim that someone was the anointed one descended from David. If someone were to claim that an executed criminal was nevertheless the rightful president of the United States, they would be bound to offer a positive spin on that event. They could not ignore it or pretend it did not happen, since objectors would bring it up. The only course would be to offer some positive interpretation. And that is exactly what we find evidence of in theological writings of the New Testament.

          There is no doubt that people can and do invent all sorts of things to support their viewpoints. To suggest that just because there have been specious claims and false attributions of quotations by Christians, atheists, and everyone else represented on the internet, therefore we can never figure out if anything any of them say is accurate, is an obvious non sequitur. In the case of most of the NT material in the Synoptic Gospels pertaining to Jesus, it is not that historians have definitively shown it to be ahistorical. Some clearly is, and some clearly is not, and for most of it, we have no way of being sure, and so historians offer the best judgment that they can given such circumstances, as they do with all other comparable figures and sources.

          I would really encourage you, if you want to discuss topics like this one in an informed manner, that you actually read what historians have written on this topic. It is extensive, not characterized by credulity but if anything, shows more skepticism than one would find in the case of most comparable figures from antiquity. But to simply dismiss as credulous an entire field of experts and assume one’s own amateur judgment is better than theirs is the way of the crackpot, and I hope you can see why I think that learning from scholars is preferable to merely dismissing what they have to say, and arrogantly assuming that one’s own assumptions provide a better guide to reality than scholarly tools and investigation, well informed by all the relevant evidence.

    • Paul D.

      My problem is that the more I study the gospels, the more I realize it’s all literary and theological fiction, every last word. Great stuff, but not historical. Since I can’t identify anything the historical Jesus did with certainty, intellectual honesty demands I consider mythicism a plausible option, even though Dr. McGrath will scoff at the idea while accepting widely ridiculous and implausible portrayals of Jesus simply because they satisfy his dogma of historicity. Do the likes of Lee Strobel or Tom Wright really give a more accurate picture of Jesus than, say, G.A. Wells or Robert Price do?

      Ultimately, I think the matter will have to be solved by learning more about the origins of Christian beliefs and practices rather than by arguing over the meaning of esoteric phrases from the epistles and using them as proof texts to bludgeon each other over. This would suggest the ball is in the court of the historians, rather than, say, a textual critic like Ehrman, brilliant though he is.

      Ironically, it didn’t even occur to me that a mythical Jesus was even a possibility to be entertained until Dr. McGrath started posting tirades against Godfrey and other myth theory believers. Mocking the underdog tends to make neutral onlookers view the other side more favourably.

      • I find this comment extremely problematic on multiple levels. First, the notion that, after historians have gone over the evidence in great detail for such a long time and questioned the historicity of absolutely everything, when the consensus is reached that there is some historical information to be gleaned from the relevant sources, it can be called “the dogma of historicity” is not merely ludicrous, but can only be a deliberate mischaracterization.

        Second, the mention of Lee Strobel, and even Tom Wright who, despite the fact that he has done some genuine historical work has been criticized for his claim to draw conclusions that are illegitimate from a historical perspective, shows that you are not talking about what historians say but what apologists say. Apologists on all sides of the spectrum will quote scholars when it suits them, to be sure, but whether they are mythicists or conservative Christians, the impression one gets of scholarship will be significantly distorted.

        And I am saddened that you say you’ve been reading my blog, and of course I know that you have been commenting here for a very long time, and yet you make no distinction between historians and apologists, and misrepresent what scholarship does. Have I really done that poor a job of communicating the difference between scholarship and the pseudoscholarship and selective use of what scholars and historians do that various groups engage in to promote their ideologies?

        • Paul D.

          When I say “dogma of historicity”, I refer not to the understandable consensus reached by most historians (and indeed which I myself have held most of my life), but to the bizarre behaviour of certain New Testament scholars of late (usually scholars who are not historians) to circle the wagons and pretend that no competent scholar would ever revisit the consensus or reach a different conclusion. Several articles on the subject have appeared at Bible and Interpretation by Verenna, Thompson and Davies, so you can’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m attacking dogma, not the consensus or historians themselves.

          “Second, the mention of Lee Strobel, and even Tom Wright …shows that you are not talking about what historians say but what apologists say.”

          Again, you misunderstand me. My point is that we have three groups: mainstream historians who follow the consensus, apologists with a superstition-laden point of view that does not resemble history, and fringe historians who question the consensus. The ire I read on this website and others directed at the third group but not the second, which is far more ludicrous, strongly suggests a dogma-based motivation.

          “And I am saddened that … you make no distinction between historians and apologists.”

          I think you just need to read my comments more closely to see that is not the case. (I was going to add, “at least you don’t hold my comments in the moderation queue until the conversation is over like some blogs do”, but then I noticed my comment had been relegated to the moderation queue. Will I be receiving this treatment permanently from now on?)

          “Have I really done that poor a job of communicating the difference between scholarship and the pseudoscholarship and selective use of what scholars and historians do that various groups engage in to promote their ideologies?”

          No offense intended, but yes, you have. You’ve used a lot of bluster to attack points of view which I fully accept are fringe and outside the consensus, but are held at least in some cases by scholars who work a lot harder to present an evidential case than the criticisms levied against them do. Scholars like Price, Wells, and Carrier (who I didn’t even know about before reading this blog) appear to know their material at least as well, if not better, than the historicists smearing them. I’m not saying that any of these scholars are perfect or even correct about their pet theories, but rather that if you really can’t stand to hear what they say, you might consider dignified silence instead of a soap box as a better approach all around.

          That all said, I appreciate the less condescending tone that the conversation between you and Carrier seems to have taken, lately.

          • Richard Carrier, even when I disagree with him, is someone who has taken the route of getting the appropriate credentials, acknowledging that a scholarly consensus is something to take very seriously, and that the only reason it should change is if serious scholarly arguments are presented that merit such change, not because someone who clearly does not grasp key points or know relevant languages self-publishes their thoughts on the topic.

            I do not accept your categorization of the three groups. There are, at present, the following groups and individuals:

            1) Traditional mainstream historians, who disagree about many of the details related to the historical figure of Jesus, but agree on a not insignificant number of points, and all conclude that the evidence supports there having been such a figure, however much later dogma and myth may obscure him from view.

            2) Postmodern historians, who focus on our inability to decisively distinguish between accurate individual and cultural memory and the transformation (whether unconscious or deliberate) of those memories by human beings, and the inevitable filling in of gaps to turn memories and tidbits of information into stories. These points apply to all figures and not only Jesus.

            3) One minimalist Hebrew Bible professor who has not denied the historicity of Jesus, but emphasizes the prominence of already-existing types in early Christianity’s depiction of Jesus, and who suggests that it may therefore be impossible to be anything but agnostic about whether those types are being related to an actual historical figure.

            4) Internet bloggers and self-published individuals, none of whom are historians, who claim that the figure of Jesus was most likely or certaintly invented based on the Hebrew Bible, or non-Jewish myths, or something else. One of them, Earl Doherty, claims that Paul’s references to Jesus’ birth, death, Jewishness and Davidic lineage refer to things that happened on the firmament but below the moon.

            5) One actual historian, Richard Carrier, who says that he finds some of what Earl Doherty has written persuasive, but has yet to publish anything that indicates exactly what he finds persuasive therein.

            6) One Biblical scholar, Richard Price, teaching at an unaccredited school, who says that Jesus was invented based on Scripture, but regularly can’t keep up that pretense and forgets that he is supposed to not think Jesus existed and so writes as though he did. It is hard to say anything about that other than what Jimmy Dunn did in his evaluation of Price’s contribution to a book representing five views on the historical Jesus: “Sad, really.”

            I am not clear why, based on the above, you think (1) that I would consider it inappropriate for scholars to investigate this matter, or (2) why you consider it inappropriate to dismiss that which is not scholarship but pretends to be. After all, as you rightly point out, apologists on the Christian side will take what scholars conclude and try to hijack it for non-historical ends. But when mythicists quote-mine scholars and offer things that they try to make look like scholarship but are completely missing key competencies and relevant evidence, should they not be criticized, since they too are trying to hijack scholarship for non-scholarly and non-historical ends? I believe I have been quite fair in criticizing all sides when they try to misuse scholarship. But you seem to think that mythicism is at present a scholarly viewpoint, whereas it doesn’t have that status, any more than resurrected saints walking around Jerusalem has that status simply because N. T. Wright, who has relevant qualifications and expertise, tried to misuse his credentials to say that it is. If all it took were for someone who has a PhD to say something somewhere for it to be considered scholarly, then mythicism could be in, but so too would conservative Christian apologetics, and creationism, and so on and so on.

            I am interacting with Carrier in a reasoned fashion because he is approaching this topic as a matter of scholarship. Wells changed his mind and became convinced that there was a historical Jesus, and so I am not sure why you mentioned him. So who exactly are the scholars or historians towards whom I am being unnecessarily dismissive? Or is it your view that anyone who posts something somewhere that mentions scholars is to be deemed scholarship? If so, then you are indeed right that I have done a terrible job of explaining the distinction.

            I also think it is important to mention the distinction between the agnosticism some have adopted about the matter of a historical Jesus, vs. mythicism, which claims that Jesus probably or certainly was invented based on earlier myths or texts. It is the latter claim that I treat dismissively, because so far no scholar has made a serious case for it. That is not the same as me saying that no one could or that no one should, nor is that the same as me saying that if someone does, it should be dismissed rather than evaluated like any other work of scholarship. I am dismissive of most mythicism because most of it is not scholarship, but precisely an attempt to bypass the peer-review that characterizes scholarship and yet pretend that what they are offering is scholarship.

  • Thompson, for example, doesn’t promote Q, though he’s probably more aptly described an agnostic. Your post might better be titled “stuff doherty says”.

    • Well, mythicists from Neil Godfrey to Richard Carrier express appreciation for Doherty’s pseudoscholarship, and so it isn’t just him. And as you rightly say, Thompson’s stance is significantly different from that of the mythicists.

      • I have seen you express appreciation for the scholarship of Craig Evans. Does that mean that you agree with every silly thing he said in Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus?

        • I try not to judge anyone by what journalists report of interviews with them. But that aside, has Earl Doherty contributed anything of value, and if so what? Or is your point that Doherty’s monumentally-sized tome is of comparable value to Strobel’s smaller ones? If so, I agree – but unlike Evans, that is the extent of what Doherty has offered.

  • Dr. David Tee

    Well what do you know, a topic that Dr. Mcgrath and i basically agree upon. Having read Kloppenborg’s and Robinson’s book The Sayings Q In greek and English I have a question to ask based on their words found on page 12:
    “The result in more recent itmes has been a multiplication of reconstructions of the Greek text Q, in whole or in part. The Sayings Gospel Q presented here…is based on the collaboration of a team of scholars, who, since 1985, have been working together as the International Q Project.”
    My question is: How can anyone reconstruct a document that has 1. never been seen by anyone; 2. never attested to in any ancient document; 3. not mentioned in the Bible; 4. has no fragmentary evidence; 5. no chance of being verified?
    The second question that goes along with the first is: How do they know they got it right?
    Of course, where I part ways with Dr. McGrath is that he does the exact same thing with genesis as Kloppenborg and Robinson do with Jesus’ words. He picks and chooses what is or isn’t God’s word just like they do with Jesus’ words (Something like what the Jesus Institute does as well)
    It seems people are self-appointing themselves rulers of God word and think they have the right to declare what is or isn’t the true words of God.

    • “Dr. Tee” – since you have never seen fit to reveal where you received your supposed doctorate, when and in what field,

      you will need to verify something. Every Christian sect means something different by the phrase “God’s Word”. So to be perfectly clear:

      What does the phrase “God’s Word” mean to you?

      Does the phrase indicate the inspiration of texts? If so, what exactly does that inspiration mean?

      Why do you believe in this particular meaning of inspiration, and why do you believe that a certain group of texts qualifies as God’s Word?

      Do you have evidence to support these beliefs, or do you believe that your claims were revealed to you by some supernatural means?

  • Mark Erickson

    Comment bait! No such thing as bad traffic, right?

  • newenglandsun

    Wait, how can you accept the existence of “Q” and then assert that Jesus was mythical? This means that their whole “No documents on Jesus until over 30 years after his death was ever written!” completely falls flat on its head.


    • Well, the argument some of them use is that Q was a collection of sayings not connected with a historical Jesus. No evidence supports that claim, but that seems not to trouble them.

      But more profoundly ironic is the fact that the reasoning for Q’s existence, based on he evidence of the Gospels, is similar to and yet not as overwhelmingly persuasive as the evidence from those same sources of there having been a historical Jesus!