Joseph Hoffmann on Mythicism, Skepticism, and Historical Reasoning

Joseph Hoffmann on Mythicism, Skepticism, and Historical Reasoning January 31, 2013

Joseph Hoffmann posted on whether “anything goes” in mythicism, providing a wonderful discussion of the appropriate and inappropriate sorts of “skepticism” and illustrating how historians reason about the evidence regarding Jesus. Around a lengthy treatment of Hegelianism, he writes things like this:

To say that Jesus is a plausible figure is thus merely to say the following: (1) His description fits the historical matrix from which it comes; (2) Allowing only for the credulity of writers and listeners of the time, there is nothing especially surprising about this description that would cause us to conclude it is fabricated or composed from assorted myths and legends, and (c) Lacking any positive grounds for thinking that the figure was invented through the fraudulence or malice of legend-spinners, it is more economical to think that it is a story (not an historical record) based upon the life and work of an historical individual. Saying only this and no more is saying that we prefer plausible explanations to more extravagant ones: that is what Occam’s razor requires us to do–to utilize and exploit the possibilities before us before spinning off into other possibilities that do not arise organically from the material in front of us and its closest known correlates.

Some responders who are deeply committed to mythicism (and use the word “historicism,” rather absurdly, to describe a “belief” in the historicity of Jesus) cling to a notion that the existence of the gospels do not “prove” that Jesus exists because it is just as “plausible” that

(a) they (the writers) were wrong about him or,

(b) they are talking about some other Jesus or some other character by some other name who was wearing a Jesus wig;  or

(c) are, for amusement or malice,  making the whole thing up.

Unfortunately, each of these invitations to skepticism is non-parsimonious; that is, they ask us without warrant to lay to one side the concrete information and what it says in favour of alternative explanations not warranted by either internal or external reasons for doing so.  Parsimony does not ask us to put skepticism on hold; it asks us to use skepticism methodologically rather than as a Pyrrhonic silver key that, at the extreme, calls final certainty about anything into question.  The effect of unbridled, unsystematic Pyrrhoinism has always been antagonistic to final knowledge about anything and mythtic utilization of the “It could be this, or that, or anything else, or nothing at all” suggests that sort of indifference to  a constructive skeptical approach to the Bible.  Hume’s rejection of Pyrrhonism might apply: “Philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it.” In short, the prior question–”What are we dealing with in the New Testament books and how can it efficiently be described” cannot begin with the belief that  all explanations have the same status and that all those rendering opinions have the same capacity to render good ones.

Click through to read the rest.

Of related interest, there is a conference about early Christianity and mystery cults.

Of tangential relatedness, Richard Carrier found Bart Ehrman’s appreciative remark about Christianity, in a book about Christianity, inappropriate.


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