Does Making Charts Help Mythicism?

Does Making Charts Help Mythicism? January 29, 2013

I laughed out loud when reading a recent post by Neil Godfrey. Most of it was neither laughable nor surprising. He discusses how we know people in the ancient world existed, with his usual shtick depicting historical Jesus scholars as confused bumblers. Nothing surprising, or interesting, except perhaps for his acknowledgment that historians in most fields do not feel the need to constantly revisit the question of a figure’s existence once it has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the experts.

What made me laugh out loud was a chart he inserted at the end.

Not that the concept was bad, or that making charts cannot be helpful. Indeed, such a table could have been useful if it had been filled in to reflect the actual state of the evidence as scholars and historians understand it.

But the way Godfrey fills in the table is arbitrary, and reminds me of how fundamentalist Christians make charts to show how their own tradition has all the “right” answers while all the “cults” are wrong (here’s a slide show with an example of that sort of thing).

The reason historians think Jesus existed is because they would fill in the chart differently than he does, because the evidence is different than he claims it is.

So here is the chart as it appeared on the blog Vridar, with the boxes emptied of the content Godfrey inserted. How would you fill in the boxes?

Historical name

(Green – primary evidence exists so historicity certain)

Name appears in non-fiction literature confirmed by primary evidence Name appears in non-fiction literature confirmed by independent literary sources Verifiable and creditable author / provenance of non-fiction literature.

Thus can be reasonably confident the author’s sources are likely traced to time of the person/events.

Genre supports historicity
Alexander the Great
Julius Caesar
Publius Vinicius the Stammerer
Honi the Circle Drawer
Bernice (daughter of Herod Agrippa I)
Tiro (Cicero’s slave)
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  • plectrophenax

    How about Boudicca?  As far as I can see, she’s mentioned by Tacitus, and that’s it.  No archaeology.  

    It all seems very long-winded to me.  One word: parsimony, indicates to me the historical Jesus. 

    • steven

      Yes, Jesus is mentioned in the Bible, isn’t he?

    • I suspect bouders would tick boxes 3 and 4 for Neil. I wonder whether the Buddha would tick any boxes though? Or the battle of catraeth?

      •  Ah yes, of course, we know every cultural icon really existed because everyone knows they did and simply takes it for granted. I mean, even the DSS and boat of Galilee and stones of Jerusalem are all evidence for Jesus Christ, according to some people.

        So if anyone attempts to find a way to make some relatively objective assessment of how we actually know so and so existed, we must mock them rather than engage them or offer alternatives. Can’t afford to have our cultural icons undermined by reason and evidence now.

    • Boudicca gets four Yes’s. The point of the chart was to demonstrate how we can have reasonable confidence in the existence of “all those other persons” for whom we have no archaeological evidence. McGrath has never yet, despite my many efforts to persuade him to do so, engaged with the argument I have presented. I challenge anyone else to do so.

      • I’d be interested to know your reasoning behind the four yesses. Not saying that I disagree, it’d just help me to understand your argument. How about Siddhartha and catraeth?

        • I don’t think the reasons would be hard to see for most people acquainted with the sources. (Of course McGrath doesn’t know them so he just assumes my entries are arbitrary 🙂 ) Until I get the time, perhaps later this evening, I point you to some of the posts I linked to where I did explain specific cases. Check the post on Publius the Stammerer, for example (linked there). I have posted on Socrates oodles of times, too. And Tiro and Hillel at least twice or more.  And of course on Julius Caesar and Alexander a gillion times, too.

          I did once ask a scholar of Buddhism about the evidence for S’s historicity but he only replied with hostility (I thought Buddhism taught peace.) Another was more polite and I can discuss his responses some time. But what I think or how I classify them is beside the point. The point of the exercise — and I explain the headings in the post — is for some relatively impartial assessment.

          I really would like to see McGrath fill out the table himself.

          • I was thinking about boudica specifically. Do any of your posts refer to her? Also interested to see where figures like Pythagoras, Hippocrates, or Sankara would fit into your model.

            Ps: if you’re interested, Romulus is the subject of this week’s In Our Time. Just about to have a listen.


          • I did once ask a scholar of Buddhism about the evidence for S’s historicity but he only replied with hostility (I thought Buddhism taught peace.) Another was more polite and I can discuss his responses some time.

            With respect Neil, I didn’t ask you how Buddhist scholars respond to questions about the Buddha’s authenticity. I asked you whether you think the Buddha or the Battle of Catraeth (or Pythagoras, Sankara, or Hippoctrates) would qualify for any ticks in your boxes, and if so which boxes?

            But what I think or how I classify them is beside the point.

            Except that it’s not besides the point is it? You wrote in your post that:

            What this table indicates is that no-one has to worry about all the other historical names falling out of the ancient history books if it was thought there was insufficient evidence to classify Jesus Christ as historical.

            I don’t have a problem with trying to make a comparative assessment of evidence for different figures, it’s something I think could be useful. But I still suspect that a lot of characters and events that are usually or often (though not necessarily invariably) considered historical would flunk out on some or all of your four criteria. I recognise that you don’t think that would necessarily rule them out as historical, but you do say that

            If a figure cannot meet any of these criteria than the best we can say is that we have no secure evidence that they really did exist. We cannot be sure if they are a literary cipher or a real person.

            That’s why I’d be interested to know where some of the above figures and events fit in with your scheme, and to understand your reasoning for this: I’m sure you’d agree that our justifications for giving a yes or no in a particular criterion would need to be consistent between different figures.

            If your approach only cast doubt on a narrow range of figures AND we were clear that the justifications were consistent between figures, then it might be a very useful approach, and you’d be justified in saying that “no-one has to worry about all the other historical names falling out of the ancient history books”.

            On the other hand, if your approach cast doubt on a much broader range of figures who are often or usually considered historical, then either we do have to worry about a fairly hefty rewrite of the history books or we might have to conclude that your criteria are something of a blunt implement.

  • Gabriel

    I think the question should be – how would you fill it up? At the end of the day, you are the expert.

    I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the chart. It would be good if it actually included a list of references to support the claims the Yes and No choices.

    • The conclusions of experts about the historical Jesus is all but unanimous, but that doesn’t carry much weight with mythicists. That’s just one reason why I thought it would be interesting to share the empty chart and see what assumptions, information, impressions, or evidence people who read this blog have and how it would lead them to fill in the boxes.

      •  What “experts” have “concluded” Jesus was historical, James? Can you tell me who these “experts” were who sat down and sifted all the evidence and consequently “concluded” Jesus existed? Ehrman says no-one had ever attempted to do any such thing until he wrote his book.

        Or do you mean that everyone speaks of Jesus as a matter of public knowledge — the very point my post was addressing and which has been the subject of related posts (linked in my post).

        So you have no argument. Why don’t YOU fill out the chart according to my explanations of the heading? I know you won’t. 🙂

        • The fact that I have addressed all this before more than once, and Neil Godfrey waits a while and then comes back and pretends that I haven’t, is one of the reasons I had to give up any hope of engaging him in reasoned conversation.

          • Geoff

            Perhaps you could provide a link?

          • Here is a round-up of most of my earlier blogging on this topic:

            You can check out the comments for my attempts to interact with Neil Godfrey before I realized that he was not actually interested in serious discussion of these topics, but in reaching a preordained conclusion.

            If there is something specific that you are looking for but cannot find (the search feature on this blog is not all that I wish it was), let me know and I will try to track down and provide a link to the relevant post – and if I can’t find one on a given topic, I will write a new one! 🙂

          • Gbarrett

            I was hoping for a link to support your claim that you had addresed the specific argument that Godfrey made in the post referenced in this blog post. I guess the answer is no, though.

          • I’ve addressed at least three of the main points, which are whether Paul refers to a historical Jesus and his brother, and was in a position to know whether such individuals existed; whether the Gospels were intended to be fiction; and whether we know what we need to about the provenance of these sources. 

            But it may be useful for me to address this again in a new post in the next couple of days, and so I will plan to do so.

    •  Good point. I would have liked to have done just that. I have certainly done as much in many of the supporting posts to which I linked at the end of the post. Will probably do so in a future post. If anyone believes I have made a mistake then — as I said in the post — just let me know.

      Of course McGrath says my filling out of the chart was arbitrary. He will never of course demonstrate that with any argument. His stock response has always been to insult and ridicule whenever cornered. 🙂

  • Claude

    Honi the Circle Drawer? Pass the cheat sheet, please!

    • Honi is a legendary Jewish figure that Neil Godfrey has no problem regarding as historical even though he is only mentioned in sources from well after his time.

      • Claude


      • Jonathan Burke

        Actually Neil claims there is archaeological evidence for Honi the Circle Drawer.

  • … Hillel? What has he got against Hillel???

    •  Nothing against Hillel. I have even said explicitly and repeatedly that Hillel may well have existed. What have you got against reading points of view that differ from yours?

  • McGrath writes: “He discusses how we know people in the ancient world existed, with his usual shtick depicting historical Jesus scholars as confused bumblers”

    Now that’s an overstatement, isn’t it? Confused on the question, certainly, but only those who devise methods of historical certainty that can be used to demonstrate Pinnochio was historical could be described as “bumblers”, yes?  — but McG has a very consistent track record of never seeing the funny side when the laugh is on him. 🙂

  • arcseconds

    Is there any evidence for the existence of Socrates beyond the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, and the play by Aristophanes, and the occasional mention of later writers?

    The play is of course fiction.

    While I suppose we’d have to say the dialogues  are non-fiction, I wonder whether they really count as non-fictional accounts of Socrates.   Xenophon and Plato both use the character Socrates for their own purposes — I doubt any serious scholar thinks Timaeus or The Republic actually represent in any way conversations that the historical Socrates actually had.

    One could argue that Socrates was really just a stock figure, like Punch or something, used as a character to illustrate the author’s own ideas.  There’s a convention that this character underwent a trial and was executed, but there’s also a tradition of Punch facing the hangman (and there’s another well known ‘mythical’ figure who supposedly had a trial by a historical ruler).

    Thinking that these works of non-fiction show that Socrates exist would then be the same sort of mistake as assuming mathematics texts show us ‘Betty’ exists (as in ”Betty had three apples, but she gave two to Charles.  How many apples does Betty have left?”) (Socrates of course continues to be  ‘attested to’ in a similar fashion in logic texts to this day.  All men are mortal; Socrates is a man, therefore…)

    (I have a niggling feeling that there were in fact stock characters in medieval academic texts, but I can’t for the life of me remember any more than that…)

  • Charles Ormsbee

    I had ‘yes’ under all four columns for Jesus.  What do I win?

  • Meh. I wish the anti-historical Jesus crowd would enroll in a few ancient history courses. Historians studying ancient history deal with this all the time. Due to the span of time it’s not exacting like science and never will be. They have to make sense of the primary, secondary, and tertiary sources all the time.

    If you apply his chart to many historical figures — some of which are on the chart —  you can draw the same conclusions.

    Take the famed samurai, Miyamo Musahi. The historical record is not clear on his early life, his birth date, who his mother was, etc. Also, there are gaps in the historical record and many unverified duels that are attributed to him — some of which probably where myth-telling as his legend grew.  Musahi is thought to have lived approximately 400 years ago.  I suspect if we added another 1,500 years to the tale, the lack of certainty would only be magnified.

    Following their logic all of historical study is bunk. If that’s true perhaps their time would be better spent getting the study of history removed from school and college curriculum?

    • Claude

      Mythicists would say they have come not to destroy history, but to fulfill. They forward their prolix apologetics under the banner of Richard Carrier’s doctorate in ancient history and the gods of science. But–perhaps it’s a good thing that mythicists have revived the debate. It has yielded some fascinating stuff from the professionals!

      • Bob Patterson


        Good point. Regarding Carrier, well, one PhD’s opinion does a consensus (or theory) make! 😉

    • Gingerbaker

       Yet, there are at least ten+  minor rabblerousers named Jesus described by contemporary historians at around the same time and place the supposed Jesus did or did not do his divine miracles, teaching, preaching to crowds, doing almost nothing – whatever role the historical Jesus apologists would assign to him.  Yet these same historians do not mention Jesus Christ, save for the roundly- disputed insertions into Josephus.

      We know a lot about even very minor figures of the time and place of the supposed Son of God, the annointed savior.  But about JC himself – a resounding silence.

      • There is only silence if one excludes the relevant evidence. Historians are inclined to view the reference in Josephus as heavily redacted rather than completely fabricated, and the evidence from Agapius confirms this. But we also have letters of someone who joined the movement centered on Jesus after having previously persecuted Jesus’ followers, and who had met his brother. In the case of any other historical figure, that would be more than ample evidence. One has to work exceedingly hard to try to spin the evidence so as to give a different impression.

        • What we actually have are the letters of a man who joined a movement centered on the risen Christ, a heavenly being who made himself known through revelations and appearances. This man had met many spiritual brothers of that heavenly being.   I can’t think of any cases of other historical figures whose existence is established with such evidence.

          • That’s not what Paul’s letters say, it is a claim mythicists make about the letters which only seems plausible to people who either have not read them, or adopt an atomistic approach akin to fundamentalists where all that matters is what you can make a verse sound like it means in English when taken out of context.

            I suggest that you try spending some time actually reading Paul’s letters and see what impression you come away with.

          • Please educate me then.  Where does Paul indicate that the risen Christ made himself known other than by supernatural means?  Where does Paul indicate that the movement he joined was centered on the sayings and deeds of a first century itinerant Galilean teacher named Jesus rather than on the supernatural risen Christ?  I have read the letters and I really and truly don’t see the context to which you are referring.

          • I’ve addressed all of this before, including the meaning of “brother of Jesus” in distinction from other Christians, and the difference between “brothers in Christ” and “brothers of the Lord.” Here are a couple of examples:

   talks frequently about the example of Jesus, such as the same attitude being in Christians which was in Jesus, who was obedient even to death on a cross. Obviously one can try to shift things to a non-earthly realm, but the Roman world on Earth was full of crosses and it is much simpler and straightforward to take Paul to mean what readers – and particularly those most familiar with his time in history – understood him to mean. Paul talks about Jesus eating and drinking in a context which can only with violence be disconnected from the Gospel’s traditions about a final mean of Jesus with his followers, a context that involved betrayal or being “handed over.” He talks about knowing Christ previously according to the flesh. He talks about him being the anointed one descended from David. He talks about him having served the Jewish people, the “circumcision.” He talks about him having become poor for the sake of others. And this figure has the ordinary Jewish name “Jesus”/”Joshua” and not an angelic name. He makes reference to “not I but the Lord” and then gives teaching which is attributed to the human figure Jesus in the later Gospels, which depict Jesus as a figure who lived in history at the time of another historical figure, John the Baptist. Again, it is not that one cannot force the texts to seem to mean something else. Fundamentalists do that with their prooftexting all the time. The point is that the texts can only be construed as meaning what you claim by isolating them, ignoring probability, ignoring normal meanings of words, ignoring everything we know about early Christianity and ancient Judaism. 

            We have been over this before, have we not? Why not just be honest about what the evidence points to? You are under no obligation to accept it as sufficient grounds for you accepting that there was a historical Jesus. But the evidence, such as it is, points in a particular direction, which is why historians and scholars are all but unanimous that there was a historical Jesus (yes, we both know the few exceptions, smaller in number than the science PhDs who accept young-earth creationism).

          • Dr. McGrath,

            We have been over this time and again, and I have conceded time and again that I am entirely open to the possibility that Paul understood the heavenly being that he encountered through appearances and revelation to once have been a flesh and blood human being who walked the earth.

            As I wrote a few weeks ago

            I will accept your interpretation of “descended from David,”” born of a woman,” and for purposes of this point, “brother of the Lord.” Nevertheless, I don’t see anything in Paul’s letters to indicate that that particular historical person needed to have any particular impact during his life in order to explain Paul’s message or its successful spread. For all Paul tells us, Jesus could have led a life of complete obscurity and it wouldn’t have effected anything Paul has to say about the risen Christ.

            So I think it is hard to justify the claim that “we also have letters of someone who joined the movement centered on Jesus after having previously persecuted Jesus’ followers, and who had met his brother.”  I don’t see where Paul indicates that the movement he joined was centered on an earthly person rather than a heavenly being nor does he indicate that the people he persecuted were followers of an earthly Galilean teacher rather than believers in that heavenly being.   It is true that later writers describe a movement that originated with a specific historical person who preached a particular message at a particular place and time, but I cannot see where Paul does.

          • Then what, pray tell, do Paul’s references to these various things indicate? You are right that Paul says much less about the life of this figure than we wish. But how does that translate into him talking about a purely celestial figure? The effort one has to make to reinterpret or dismiss all the relevant allusions and details, however few, makes that reading much less likely. And yet your comment suggested that it was a straightforward reading of the letters, indeed, you implied it was the straightforward reading of the letters.

          • Then what, pray tell, do Paul’s references to these various things indicate?

            The short answer is this Dr. McGrath:  How the hell should I know?  

            Paul claimed to have known a celestial being through visions and revelations who he believed had once been a man Jesus who walked the earth.  Joseph Smith also claimed to have known a celestial being through visions and revelations who he believed had once been a man Moroni who walked the earth.  Joseph Smith tells me all sorts of details about the alleged man behind his celestial being, none of which can be corroborated and none of which are the slightest bit plausible historically.  Therefore, I can safely conclude that there never was a historical Moroni.  Paul, on the other hand, tells me virtually nothing that I might use to corroborate the historicity of the alleged man behind his celestial being.  Therefore, I don’t see any way to determine based on what Paul writes that the movement he joined was based upon an actual historical person rather than visions and revelations of a heavenly being.

            One of the biggest problems I have is my inability to reach any conclusion about the historical reality of Paul’s experiences.  Was he a genuine religious visionary? A schizophrenic?  A pathological liar?  Even with all the first person accounts we have concerning Joseph Smith, I don’t think that we can really do anything more than speculate about what was actually going on in his head, and as far as I can tell, there is no real consensus among historians.  How much less likely is it that we can ever claim to understand how Paul came up with the ideas that he had?  How could I possibly determine that the ideas he had were better explained by an actual historical Jesus than by his visions of the risen Christ? 

            It is true that later writers incorporated elements of what Paul wrote into stories about a man who preached a particular message at a particular time and place, and maybe when you add it all up, it tips the balance in favor of the existence of such a man.  Nevertheless, as independent evidence of the historical Jesus’ existence, I still think that Paul’s letters suck.

          • You don’t see a way, even if he met Jesus’ brother, and said that Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh? That doesn’t suggest that Paul, who was not the founder of this movement and so is not really comparable to Joseph Smith in an important sense, reflects the conviction that Jesus was a recent historical figure, and that he was poised to know whether he was?

            As someone who came go the religious movement after it had already started, he could try to use claims to celestial revelations to match or outdo the authority of others. But the religion and its central figure and his brother were already there. And that makes for a very different case than that of Joseph Smith, even without listing all the differences between what was said about Jesus and what was said about Moroni by these two figures, in very different historical contexts.

      • Paul D.

        Philippians 2 says Jesus was bestowed his name after dying and ascending to Heaven. Perhaps, to find the historical Jesus, we should be looking for a sage/rabble-rouser/apocalyptic prophet who *wasn’t* named Jesus in his human form.

        • Actually, the “name above every name” is almost certainly the divine name Yahweh. We have a long tradition in Judaism of God bestowing his name upon a supreme agent (e.g. Metatron as the “little Yahweh”, the angel Yahoel, Moses in Samaritan literature) and other evidence of the association of this idea with Jesus (the name being given to Jesus even earlier, according to the Gospel of John, and Jewish polemic which said that Jesus was able to do miracles because he tattooed the divine name on himself).

          • Paul D.

            Right after it says Jesus was given the name above all names, it explicitly says “the name of Jesus”, not Yahweh. Appealing to Enoch or the Samaritan literature seems a little far-fetched when the plain reading of the passage is so obvious. 

            This is not a mythicist argument per se. The version of Jesus described by the Gospels and the epistles is obviously a mythical, supernatural deity, as most historians and NT scholars would acknowledge. Why shouldn’t his followers have thought he was given a new name — the supreme name of a saviour messiah, Joshua or “the salvation of Yahweh” — upon his ascension and exaltation by God? Especially if some early Christians took an adoptionistic view of Christ and his *future* coming as Messiah.

            For a more in-depth exegetical analysis of the Philippians hymn, see:
            C. F. D. Moule, “Further Reflections on Philippians 2:5-11,” W. Ward Gasque & Ralph P. Martin, eds., Apostolic History and the Gospel. Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F.F. Bruce, 1970.

          • I personally find the suggestion that the name Joshua was thought by anyone to be the “name that is above all names” far fetched. But evidence for the bestowal by God of the actual divine name (or in Philo and the Pseudo-Clementine literature, the title God) on a principle agent is widespread, and what I think an ancient reader would have understood. It is because of the bestowal of the divine name, on this reading, that the monotheistic worship language from Isaiah of knees bowing and tongues confessing can be appropriately directed to Jesus – and because, as appointed agent, such worship is ultimately directed to “the glory of God, the Father.”

            I agree, this isn’t about mythicism. It is just a question if what name was understood to be bestowed on the exalted human being in the hymn.

    • arcseconds

       ‘Miyamoto Musashi’, I believe?   That’s the way it’s generally written, and that’s the way I’ve heard Japanese people pronounce it.

  • “Is there any evidence for the existence of Socrates beyond the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, and the play by Aristophanes, and the occasional mention of later writers?
    The play is of course fiction.”

    But by taking genre into account, the play provides probably the clearest indication that Socrates was a historical person. And it is a firm designation, understood as a defined genre to contemporaries: Athenian Old Comedy. (Note that we lack such a clear designation for the gospels.) The form called for contemporary figures, celebrities of their day, essentially, to be lampooned in the course of the fictional drama. The appearance of Socrates in The Clouds would not have made sense to the original audience if he had been a fictional creation. The role is specifically one of an actual figure well enough known so that the treatment is funny. And this kind of incidental use of a figure in a fictional context in which the figure is not the main character is much better evidence than a fictional treatment the entire purpose of which is to aggrandize the putative person. If we had anything contemporary like that for Jesus the mythicist case would be much harder to sustain.

    • arcseconds

       That’s really interesting.  Thanks.

    • arcseconds

      … and in may respects it’s the flip side of my main point, which that ‘non-fiction’ doesn’t necessarily give us any reason to suppose that the people mentioned are real.  

      The flip side being that fiction can in fact give us plenty of reason to think that the people mentioned in it are real. 

       (I guess political caricatures  might serve as a contemporary example — for example in Punch!)

  • Bog Patterson

    Make that… one PhD’s opinion does NOT a consensus (or theory) make! 😉

  • Dr. McGrath,

    The religion and its central figure may have already been there, but from everything I read in Paul, that central figure was a heavenly being who manifested himself through visions and revelations rather than the man that heavenly being had once been thought to be.  I can’t really see anything in Paul that would allow me to conclude that Paul’s predecessors knew anything more about the historical Jesus than he did.   Had there been such a man, they certainly would have been in a position to know, but I think that just begs the question as to whether there was.  That Paul claimed celestial revelation in order to match or outdo the authority of his predecessors doesn’t tell me whether their authority was based on their own claimed revelations of the risen Christ or their status as disciples of a historical Jesus.  Paul may not have been the founder of the movement in the same sense that Joseph Smith was the founder of Mormonism, but I don’t think that makes it much more likely that the movement was centered on a historical person rather than a supernatural being.

    Moreover, I think the fact that Paul only cites revelation and scripture as the sources of his understanding of the risen Christ makes it very difficult to identify any other founders.  Paul speaks of his predecessors in the faith, but as far as we know, these men were illiterate peasants.  I don’t see how we could establish which, if any, of the theological concepts we find in Paul’s letters were part of the movement before Paul came along.  

    If Paul met Jesus’ actual biological brother that would certainly be good reason to think that there was an actual historical Jesus.  I think there is room for doubt on the question though.  As far as Paul saying that Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh, that seems to me to be the kind of information that Paul (or someone else) would have gotten while searching scripture in an effort to understand his visions.   I don’t see how it adds any weight to an argument for historicity.