Mythicist vs. Short Smiling Scholar

Mythicist vs. Short Smiling Scholar November 29, 2012

It has been a while since I have blogged about mythicism. But several mythicism-related blog posts have appeared over the past day or so.

I will start with the most entertaining. Rene Salm managed to get a paper accepted at SBL, and not only has he shared his paper online, but at the blog Vridar there are also excerpts from Salm's account of the conference. Apparently he saw me there, and based on his description of me and his comments about my paper, my smile and lack of stature were sufficient to prevent him from grasping what I said and why I said it.

His complaints about my scholarly nuance and caution, his conviction that one should put greater trust in Mandaean sources written centuries after the time of John the Baptist while he doesn't trust early Christian sources to get a village's existence right mere decades later, and his claim to be simply saying what archaeologists say about Nazareth when no professional archaeologist agrees with him, will all provide you with hours minutes seconds of hilarity.

On his blog, Bart Ehrman has been sharing his discussion of Salm and his claims about Nazareth from his book. Since Salm has nothing new to say on the topic, there was obviously no need to write something new in response. Nor is Salm likely to ever have anything genuinely new to say on the topic, since he doesn't actually do archaeology. He listed his affiliation as “University of Oregon” on the SBL program. but his degrees from there are in music and German. (And since I was unable to make it, I would like to hear from someone who actually attended the session where Salm presented about what transpired there.)

Also on the subject of mythicism, Thomas Brodie recently revealed that he is a mythicist and has been one for decades. Richard Carrier has read his book and explains why Brodie's reasons for adopting this view are unsound.


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  • Ian

    Carriers wariness of Brodie is wise politically, but is it unfair from a content perspective to apply the same skepticism to the existence of Paul as portrayed in the NT, as Jesus? [Clearly someone wrote the epistles, but for a good number of them we agree it wasn’t the Paul they’re claimed to be by – why should we assume any were?] A major problem I have with mythicism, is that there is a vast area of lower-lying land, of more tenuous claims than the existence of Jesus. And other than the obvious lack of ready market, it seems they’d be a more credible playground for ignostic history than Jesus. But it is difficult to appear sane if you’re arguing for such a wholesale reappraisal of historical scholarship. The mythicism stuff I’ve read hasn’t done a very good job of saying why Jesus is a special case, and why the other dominoes shouldn’t topple first, so it smells a lot like ideological special pleading.

    • ehj1919

      Crucial new understandings of the “Jesus Puzzle” made
      possible by present historical and scientific methods and knowledge.

      Schubert Ogden: “We now not only
      know that none of the writings of the OT is prophetic witness to Christ, we
      also know that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus.”
      This is a judgment based on historical evidence determined by an insider of the
      Guild of NT Studies. Eric Zuesse : “The religion of the NT actually has nothing
      to do with the person of the historical Jesus.”
      This is a scientific judgment based on scientific evidence determined by
      an outsider. Hence we now have conclusive evidence, both from the methodologies
      of history and science, that the writings of the NT, Paul’s letters, the
      Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, are not sources for knowledge
      of Jesus. Our most certain historical evidence can only come from within the
      Guild of NT Studies, even as our best scientific evidence can only come from
      outside. No evidence, historical or scientific, is presented to question that
      we have NT sources of apostolic witness to Jesus. Only from within the Guild of
      NT Studies might a scholar have acquired sufficient competence in the Guild’s
      areas of special knowledge, which necessarily applies, if one is to become enabled
      to fully access the historical evidence necessary to identify this NT source of
      apostolic witness to Jesus. As Eric Zuesse’s probe demonstrates, full
      historical details of origins of Jesus traditions during the years 30-65, can only
      be accessed by historical scholars from within the Guild. E.g., Eric’s probe
      fails to recognize that there were two distinctly different movements (denominations)
      during this earliest period of Jesus
      traditions, each with its own understanding of the significance of Jesus,
      marked by “an extraordinarily intimate, more precisely adversarial,
      relationship” (H. D. Betz). Both were pre Christian, pre Gospel, partly pre
      Pauline. The first movement was the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began with
      the key disciples returning to Jerusalem, having fled to their native Galilee,
      purposing to again take up the teachings of Jesus. It was from this Jesus
      movement that we have our sole source of apostolic witness to Jesus. Paul was
      never a member of the Jesus movement, in point of fact, he was their arch enemy
      as propagator of the second movement.

      The second movement soon followed
      the Jesus movement, a pre Pauline Hellenist movement which introduced the
      notion that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah whose significance was the salvific
      effects of his death and resurrection, which abrogated the Torah. This in
      effect was treason for Temple authorities. Paul is introduced as a participant in an apparent
      put down by Temple authorities of some kind or anti Torah demonstration,
      holding the garment of those casting the stones in the Acts story of the
      stoning of Stephen, the leader of this Hellenist group. Next we find Paul as persecutor
      of this group, having his “vision” on the road to Damascus to where the
      Hellenist group fled. This resulted in Paul’s conversion to this group, from
      which he received his Christ myth gospel. In taking his gospel to the Gentile world, first
      to Antioch meeting with ready success, this had the effect of severing knowledge
      of Jesus from his teaching and his Jewish roots. As winners in the struggle for
      dominance, becoming Gentile Christianity, they could label the Jesus Movement
      heresy to remove it from the pages of history. The Gospels were written by
      followers of Paul’s Christ Myth gospel. All of these developments are
      sufficiently documented in the NT.

      • Ian

        When you throw around words like ‘scientific’ and ‘conclusive’ in a context like that, it is clear you’re overegging. Anyone who claims to have come to any scientific and conclusive conclusion about anything in ancient history is mistaken. The rest is a story, and not totally infeasible, but very far from having scientific evidence. There are a whole range of possible histories, among which we are largely ignorant. The historians job is not to choose one, but to identify features of many of them, and put them forward as likelihoods.

        • Azrael

          You deal in possibilities…..

          • Ian

            Fear anyone who claims to deal in certainties…

        • ehj1919

          Ian, I have experienced distractions, my reply is delayed. Your comment may well apply from an atheist stance. I comment as a theist. Herein lies the difference: The history of histories unmistakeable recognizes the duality of knowledge: the reality of sense percieved knowledge as well as the reality of extra-sensory knowledge – Ultimate Reality. “Our scientiific observations of the world and our revolutionary inheritence readily leads to the assumption of human rationality that it is legitimate to seek explanation for things and that we truly understand something only when it can be explained. Might it not be the case that the reason for existence has no explanationin the usual sense?’ (Paul Davies Prov. of Mathematical Physics, Uv. Adeliade, Australia)
          I comment as a thiest on the authority of one of our top critical historical NT theologians and the first known scientific probe into NT understanding. From my perspective that carries a high level of certainity.

          • Ian

            Well, if your story about Paul is a scientific conclusion based on your extra-sensory knowledge of ultimate reality and your theism, then it is helpful, at least, for the result of us to understand that you’re using “scientific” in a completely different way to us!

            If what constitutes a scientific conclusion depends on what you believe about God, then you’re doing science wrong.

            I had no problem with you Ogden quote (or even that of Zuesse), but neither contributed in the slightest to the just-so-story that followed.

        • ehj1919

          I did not claim that my Paul story was scientific. Zuesse makes that claim for his Paul story.I simply made some corrrective supplementry details which i find documented in NT writings, the same source Zuesse used for his scientific probe. I find these to be essential details for making the Paul story a consistent story with our full NT documentetion. This has nothing to do with my God beliefs. I did note in my comment the significant fact that neither Ogden nor Zuesse raised evidence to question the claim that we have NT apostolic witness to the person of the historical Jesus, his existence is accpted.

    • William J E Dempsey

      1) And there is no possible ideology or bias at all, in those who claim that Jesus is historically real? Let’s keep in mind that this belief, that Jesus is real, is central to after all, a religion; and let’s keep in mind that religious zealots are notoriously non-objective. Especially when after all, Christians implicitly and often explicitly reject Reason and rational arguments. As Christians frequently insist that religion must be propounded and followed, not with reasons, but with all-but-blind “faith.”
      2) Granted, much of Mythicism is currently speculative. But it often frankly admits as much. Indeed, Mythicism asserts that legends of Jesus came from nothing more certain or quantiable than myths. While Historicists on the other hand, claim far, far more certainty, than actual Historical evidence would justify.
      3) Mostly, real history would not allow the existence of Jesus; there is just not enough objective evidence for it. If History at times allow the existence of seemingly similar, marginal figures – like Socrates, or Homer, say – then after all, note two major explanations for this: a) that existence IS at times qualified, as tentative and open to question. And b) Historians view assertions of the historical existence of Jesus as somewhat more questionable than otherwise similar-seeming cases; because they can clearly see masses of even explicit, anti-evidential, ideological bias, in such religious accounts.

      • Ian

        1 – so? I’ve met no mainstream scholars who would deny quite explicitly that the Jesus of the Christian stories is a myth. There are some I know of, and I’d be happy to say their ideology has tainted their critical faculty, just as I say the same about those who I consider to be caught up in mythicism as a result of their atheistic zeal. The historical Jesus of scholarship is not central to any version of Christianity I know about.

        2 – this is simply not my experience, although I’ve heard it said (so it is obviously how many people perceive it). I’ve heard as much certainty from some mythicists for whom the no-historical-Jesus idea is not an agnostic one, but a matter of positive historical deduction. Others differ. There are certainly mythicists who say “we just don’t know, there could have been a real person, but let’s err on the side of skepticism”. But there are non-mythicists who acknowledge the uncertainty just as much. Among whom I would count myself. When I’ve had proper conversations about this with professional scholars I get the sense my views are fairly unremarkable.

        3 – citation needed. I don’t recognize any of these claims. Homer, for example, is rarely recognized as a single historical figure these days, he’s mostly a personification. Socrates, on the other hand, is rarely qualified in practice, because there’s very little reason to. What would qualify as ‘explicit anti-evidential bias’?

        I suspect you’re mostly reading into my statement what you think I’m saying. Which is not unusual, on either side of the question. Here’s a post about that:

        • William J E Dempsey

          It is only rather recently, historically speaking, that critical Religious Studies has emerged, and has (partially) differentiated itself from “faith-based” studies. But this is only now really taking place; and I submit that huge amounts of the old religious bias – the explicit rejection of rational evidence, in favor of faith and dogmatism – remain, even in this nascient scholarly field.
          In particular, I submit that in the old anti-rationalist “faith” motivates the frequent insistence, among Historicists, that Jesus existed as an historical individual. The fact is that real Historiography, would not justify even the minimal existence of the “Historical Jesus”; of a real but rather unmiraculous person named Jesus, as the inspiration for Chrisitanity. There is just not enough independent confirmation of his existence, for one thing.
          I agree that there is a properly noncommitted and open attitude on both sides, often; among both Historicists and Mythicists. But recently we have been dealing with Ehrman’s apparent insistence that the historical Jesusm is now firmly proven as fact. And so some counter-rhetoric is probably now necessary.
          There have been “historical” figures whose real existence has been recently questioned. I mentioned both Socrates and Homer. Socrates or his work is today still regarded as historical, to be sure. (Scholars once noted the earliest manuscripts we have seem to date from the Renaissance). But think of Homer; note that many historians once spoke of Homer as real. In fact, the de-historicization of Homer, might well be an interesting preview of what the de-historicization of Jesus should look like.
          I am aware of SOME flexibility in your statements, and nuance; and a certain amount of even-handedness. Though I took the overall tone of your comment to be rather more strongly negative about Mythicism, than Historicism. For that reason, I am noting a few flaws in the too-adamant historicism that recently, has become far too common.
          And I believe that even the most apparently “scholarly” Historicism depends for its popularity, ultimately, on a veiled appeal to after all, at least the skeleton of traditional dogmas: at least it is saying that Jesus exists. In however minimal form. And that is all too convenient politically, in mollifying traditional believers.

          • Ian

            There are a whole bunch of overlapping significant issues in your comment, such as:

            Is mythicism an agnostic or positive claim?
            Is historical Jesus scholarship historiographically substandard?
            Should we react to extreme bias by deliberately over egging the counter position, so as to hopefully form a sensible median position?
            Is mythicism the harbinger of a change in scholarly opinion, or yet another pseudo scholarship?
            Is historical Jesus scholarship germane to Christian belief?
            Is it moral for an atheist to advocate a position that can be co-opted as an argument for theism?
            Does it serve anti-theism more to support or reject mythicism?

            All of which are interesting, but IMHO answers to several of them have been calcified together into debating positions that have very little to do with the actual historical question. I find myself wanting to answer them separately.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Feel free to do so.
            Normally scholarship should be “disinterested,” or purely objective; without ideology or agenda. This Kantian disinterestedness to be sure, by now has come to seem to be an ideology. But agnosticism is deeper down really scholarly openness to new discoveries. This perpetual openness may seem anti-positive at first.

  • Susan Burns

    I cannot understand why Nazareth is considered part of Galilee. It is not “around” the Kinneret. It is lowland as opposed to highland. It has an entirely different economy from the Galilee. The Galilee is on the European plate and Nazareth is on the African plate (Misliya cave – evolution canyon). The flora and fauna of Galilee is European and Nazareth is African. Even the indigenous peoples look to be from entirely different genetic ancestry. Looking at a map, it appears that the boundaries were jerry rigged for the purpose of including Nazareth with the Galilee District. In modern times, Republicans jerry rig boundaries the same way so that voting districts are not majority Democratic. Perhaps historically Nazareth was not included in the Galilee district but jerry rigging was accomplished to agree with the Gospels?

    • There are indeed two distinct regions, lower Galilee and upper Galilee. See Josephus’ description:

      • Susan Burns

        Other historical “facts” that have been attributed to Josephus are proven to be propaganda. I have never been able to find any corroborating evidence for Josephus’ Lower Galilee designation. Do you know of any? Galil means to encircle or surround. Why would the finger of land of “Lower Galilee” use this descriptor? The villages of Jesus’ ministry were surrounding the Kinneret. Did he ever visit the villages of the lower plain? It seems more likely that Jesus was a Nazir – not a native of Nazareth. Especially because Christians are called Notsrim.

        • Hi Susan. I am not inclined to say that all our first century sources are wrong about Lower Galilee. Places end up with all sorts of names for all sorts of obscure historical reasons. But would you really deny that Sepphoris was at one point the capital of the Galilee? That would involve rejecting archaeological and not merely textual evidence, would it not?

          That Jesus was a Nazir/Nazirite is unlikely, other than when he made the final vow to abstain from grape products at the Last Supper. That he and his followers were placed in already-existing category of Nazoreans is plausible. And so Matthew may have tried to address that, not by inventing Nazareth, but by suggesting that Jesus was “called a Nazorean” because of the village he was from rather than in a religious sense that author found unacceptable.

          • Susan Burns

            It was foreigners that made Sepphoris administrative capital of Galilee and Sepphoris is not Nazareth. Sepphoris is a highland city with an economy that could be linked to Galilee much like Tsfat. Nazareth must have had a totally different culture. IIt is odd that this important capital city was never mentioned in the NT.
            I am sure Matthew did not invent Nazareth and did not claim so. What about the 40 days in the wilderness as a Nazarite pledge?

          • Nazareth is three miles from Sepphoris. Yes, villages would have been culturally different in many ways from cities. My point was about the geographical situation of Nazareth in Galilee.

          • Susan Burns

            Even today, Israelis can determine where another Israeli is from just by speaking with them for a few minutes. Somewhere in the NT it says a person was able to tell a Galilean by his accent insinuating Jesus ALSO had the same accent. This accent was not attributed to the fact that a recent administrative line had been drawn on a map. The lowland grain farmers would have had a much different way of dressing, speaking, looking and acting than the fishermen, orchard workers and learned people of the highland Galilee. I very much doubt that if Jesus were truly from Nazareth, his accent would give him away as a Galilean or that he would even consider himself a Galilean. Even today, Nazareth is a world away from the “Upper” Galilee and hometowns of his disciples. What is the reason followers of Jesus were called Notsrim? They were not all from Nazareth. Besides, citizens of Nazareth would have been called something like Nazareti.

          • Susan Burns

            I once wrote a letter to a biblical scholar asking this very question; why are Christians called Notsrim? Her answer was; for a very good reason. To this day, I wonder what that very good reason is.

          • Since I do not know who the scholar in question was, I cannot even guess what they thought the reason might be.

            There are two terms in Greek used in the NT and typically rendered into English. One, Nazarenos, seems to be a lingistically plausible way of referring to someone from Nazareth. The other, Nazoraios, with a long “o” for the first “o”, is less likely to ever have arisen to express such a meaning. The term is used in Acts when Paul is said to be “a ringleader of the Nazoreans” with it sounding like it was an already-known group. And the Mandaeans have a term Nasurai which designates someone well acquainted with their esoteric teachings, a religious expert. Add to that Epiphanius’ statement that there was a group known as Nasareans who existed prior to Christianity, and we have the makings of a strong case for this term having been around before the rise of Christianity.

            Whether we can pin down exactly what it meant then is another question… 🙂

          • William J E Dempsey

            The importance of Jesus taking a vow not to drink wine until the coming of the kingdom, should not be minimized; the vow not to drink until a given date, is the classic, core, definitive vow of a “Nazarite.” As distinguised from mere residents of the village of Nazareth.

            It is sometimes thought by scholars that Jesus perhaps was originally a Nazarite in fact; but later it came to be claimed that he was instead merely from a town named “Nazareth.” Out of confusion; Luke’s knowledge of Palestinian geography for instance, being notoriously vague.

            Possibly late, Lucian/Roman editors – who demanded wine and its use in sacraments – studiously converted the name for keepers of this anti-drinking vow, to the name of a town. While later a small, new village was actually given this new name.

    • Susan Burns

      Oops – I meant jerry mander (not jerry rig). Jerry rig is the method my hubby uses to fix things around the house.

  • Mike K

    But James, how can we ever trust anything you write now since you smile too much? lol

  • (And since I was unable to make it, I would like to hear from someone
    who actually attended the session where Salm presented about what
    transpired there.)

    James, do you mean you don’t want to read Salm’s paper online but want to hear someone tell you what you want to hear about it instead? Did you even read the excerpts from it on vridar where he anticipates and demolishes the thrust of your ad hominem? Do you have anything other than ad hominem response to the actual argument Salm had against your paper?

    As for Ian’s criticism of mythicism, this is a commonly enough repeated canard that has been answered many times over. (e.g. — it is the sort of arm-chair criticism one has come to expect from those who have never seriously engaged with serious mythicist arguments.

    • Academic librarians in my part of the world are expected attend conferences, and so I suspect that Neil Godfrey is back to his old attempts at misrepresentation, same as ever. But for those outside of academia, at a conference session papers are not only read but discussed, and so to be perfectly clear, I was mot asking for someone to summarize his paper for me, which I explicitly said is online. I was asking how the session went – what sort of reception the paper got, what the questions were like, etc.

    • Ian

      May be a canard if you’d understood my point, Neil. I did not mention (nor was I thinking about) Alexander, Socrates, or Julius Ceasar. I’m sure strawmen arguments have been knocked down many times. I’m sure there are those that make them in seriousness. I did not. Maybe you’d like to seriously engage with what is actually being said rather than constructing a fantasy world of enemies.

    • Azrael

      I do not see your arguments as a mythicists position. You actually strike me as a fence sitter much like Erhman.

  • Mark Erickson

    James, can you provide a non-pay wall link to show no pro arch. agrees with Salm? Do you think all those who have excavated around Nazoreth were professional arch.? And could make a brief comment of the fact of Brodie’s mythicism?