Kinds of Mythicism

Kinds of Mythicism January 8, 2013

Ian has posted on his blog a range of different views which might be – or be mistaken for – forms of “mythicism.” Obviously most historians find there to be myth in the Gospels, and so if finding myth to be present were all it took for one to be a mythicist, then everyone but conservative Christians would be mythicists. But since there is a distinctive view which argues against the overwhelming consensus of mainstream scholarship in suggesting that it is all myth, one needs to make distinctions, and Ian does so well, offering the term “historical minimalism” for the more skeptical end of the spectrum of mainstream scholarship about Jesus.

Joseph Hoffmann continues his blogging about mythicism, taking Ian’s post as his starting point. In the process, he emphasizes the importance of looking at the earlier history of mythicism, as part of the broader history of scholarly interest in Jesus. Earlier mythicism, like that of some today (Robert Price might fit into this category), was motivated by theological rather than atheistic concerns, as people sought a Jesus who did not need to depend on the results of historical criticism, as destructive and open to revision as they were. Here’s a sampling of some excerpts from Hoffmann’s post:

Unfortunately some of the loudest advocates of mythicism are making the question less interesting. They are making it less interesting partly because they deride before they read, and partly because they are committed to an obnoxious and sophomoric debating style that puts serious discussion at jeopardy. While they toss around words skimmed from logic primers and snippets of “scholarship” (largely robbed from atheist and free thought websites dealing with early Christianity), it’s clear that they are simply out to score points, which becomes far easier when you are unable to recognize when points are scored against you–a situation enhanced by an internet culture in which the last commenter always wins. No one wants the internet to be less smart. But everyone wants it to be smarter. As a group, the mythicists have proven themselves happier in the echo chamber of their own beliefs than in a world where a real interchange of ideas can happen.

…Mythicism didn’t collapse because it was suppressed–-it thrived as a sub-genre in early twentieth century theology, even in newspapers. It collapsed under its own weight, and its nostalgic reintroduction seems doomed to repeat the same fatal errors that killed it the first time round…

I am still waiting for some proof from the mythtics that the story is concocted, either out of thin air or as an amalgam of competing myths, not many of which look very much like the Jesus story at all. As comparative religionist Jonathan Z. Smith has noted concerning the “prevalence” of the dying and rising god myth, it isn’t prevalent at all; it’s “largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.” So out of fashion is the category that modern classicists, religionists, and historians avoid it altogether, and it survives largely in the imagination of amateurs whose views are formed by outdated nineteenth century speculations.

…Increasingly the far reaches of mythicism begin to sound more like the wingnut birtherism that declared Barack Obama was born in Kenya and the report of his birth called into a Honolulu newspaper in prescient anticipation that one day he would need the right stuff to be president.

The circle circles: Because the gospels are unreliable. Because the gospel writers were making things up. Because the early Christians needed a saviour god story after Paul (who in some circles is also made up!) to rival the stories of the other mysteries. I often quote Morton Smith’s rejoinder to George Wells, that the Jesus of the mythtics is unbelievable far beyond anything we find in the gospels. But I do want (earnestly) to understand their reasoning, because on the face of it, it seems not just paper thin but dangerous.

Until that reasoning is made clear, person to person and camp to camp, any attempt at typology is premature.

Click through to read the entire long but very rich post.

Also related is Anthony Le Donne’s post on why the “quest” paradigm in historical Jesus research needs to be done away with.

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  • Ian

    Thanks for the response, James.

    I didn’t explain in the post very well, but all the categories are categories I’ve found in people who describe themselves as Mythicists, or who argue against the scholarly consensus.

    I’ve made a fool of myself more than once assuming someone on the other side of the argument is channelling Zeitgeist, and the post was a reminder that people adopt labels for many reasons, only some of which are to do with their actual beliefs.

    • Indeed, distinctions are important. I’ve encountered people who find the Zeitgeist stuff every bit as bogus as I do, but are unhappy when those views are associated with their own sort of mythicism. I’ve also encountered people who, when they started defending what they thought mythicism was, clearly were not of the view themselves that everything ancient authors said about Jesus was myth, just that much of it was. And so I appreciate your point very much and your effort to bring clarity!

  • Don

    I really dont get this argument you see repeated ad nausem now by mythicists that because scholars generally acknowledge that a lot of the Jesus story did not happen as it is relayed in the Gospels (i.e. miracles) therefore scholarships has started on the mythicsts road, that we are all mythicists now only some of us don’t want to let go, or they high-five themselves when you try and engage them in scholarship and claim there is some grand trajectory that will lead to full mythicism. Its much akin to that vacuous one-liner that because monotheists only believe in one God they are a majority atheist since they don’t believe in all the other gods.

    • Indeed, and it is particularly obvious in the realm of history that it is not an all-or-nothing scenario – except for religious fundamentalists, that is, and those whose views have been shaped by the assumptions of religious fundamentalism.

      In history, it is obvious that the discovery that one particular story is mythical has no automatic bearing on whether others are.

      To give an example, it may be that everything that Rabbinic sources tell us about Shammai is polemic by the school of Hillel. Does that demonstrate that there was no historical Shammai? Not at all.

      The all-or-nothing reasoning seems to only be applied by Jesus, and when it is done so, that immediately indicates that the person in question is dealing in apologetics, not history.

      • For me the relevant differential is not all vs. nothing, but almost-nothing vs. nothing. From what I can tell, almost-nothing is perfectly viable and respectable. If this be so, then I cannot understand how nothing can be bat-crap, tin-foil-hat, drinking-the-Kool-Aid, flat-earth, Elvis-sighting crazy. At-least-something may be the objectively correct position (whatever the hell that might mean), but I cannot believe that it is anywhere near as secure as the historicists make it out to be if almost-nothing is at all respectable.

        • I don’t think that we know “almost nothing” about Jesus. I think we know very little with a very high degree of certainty, but there is much that is probable that can be treated in the same way as we treat other probable information from history.

          To use your analogy, mythicism is a bit like saying that, since all the sightings of Elvis are likely to be false, we can dispense with a historical Elvis altogether. It is not a close analogy, to be sure. But the point is that just because it can be reasonable to dismiss even 9/10 of the information about a person as at least possibly fabricated, that does not mean that one can do so equally reasonably with the remaining 1/10. Each bit of evidence needs to be weighed on its own merits. And sometimes it can indeed be bizarre and unscholarly to insist on the non-existence of a figure that most historians agree has been largely obscured from view by legend and dogma.

          • If we had only heard of Elvis from the people who claimed to have seen him after he died, I think it would be much more difficult to establish his historicity.

            As I have said before, in the case of Alexander the Great or Elvis for that matter, if you scrape away the fantastic stories that arose concerning them after their deaths (and even during their lives), you still have a significant historical footprint based on their accomplishments during their lives. In fact, it was those accomplishments that inspired people to invent the fantastic stories about them. In the case of Jesus, if you take away the fantastic stories that arose after he died, it is entirely possible that he would have left no historical footprint whatsoever. It was the belief in Jesus’ supernatural accomplishments after his death that inspired people to tell stories about his life at all.

            Any story that was told about Jesus was told for the purposes of propagating faith in those postmortem accomplishments, and many stories were invented for that purpose. That’s what makes it so difficult to establish that any particular story is the product of a genuine memory rather than an invention. It is that problem which makes almost-nothing a respectable position, and that problem which I believe makes nothing simply a step or two farther along on the same spectrum rather than the giant leap that many historicists claim it to be.

          • As you probably know, I disagree. Had Jesus not made an impact during his actual life, one that convinced some people that he was the anointed one they were waiting for, it is unlikely that the postmortem stuff would have been developed. We might then have had a brief mention in Josephus, untampered with, which no one would take any more interest in, or dispute about, any more than most other things Josephus mentions. But history turned out differently, and did so precisely because of the impression the historical Jesus made. There is no plausible scenario on which the postmortem stuff is developed in the absence of a pre-mortem Jesus. And that is why denying the historical Jesus seems like silly nonsense to historians.

          • I find it hard to see where the person who was most responsible for the early success of the movement was affected by any impact that Jesus made during his actual life. Paul points us toward visions and revelations of the risen Christ as the driving force in the movement. Regardless of whether you think he understood Jesus to be a historical person or not, his letters give us no evidence that anything that person did or said prior to the night before his crucifixion was necessary to Paul’s message.

          • As I have said before when we have had this same conversation, one can only view the matter as you do if they ignore the range of meanings of “anointed one” who was “descended from David according to the flesh” in the Judaism of Paul’s time, and whom Paul said he was not merely awaiting but that God “had sent…born of a woman, born under the Law…”

            It is the pretending that, because he says so little, Paul tells us nothing, that makes mythicism something for cranks and crackpots rather than scholars.

          • My view is not based on the claim that Paul thought of Jesus as a purely celestial being. 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.

            Moreover, the spread of Mormonism shows us that a substantial religious movement can sprout from people accepting a single man’s e claimed visions and revelations of ahistorical events. That is of course no proof that such a thing happened with Christianity, but the fact it has happened shows that visions and revelations alone can explain the birth and growth of a movement.

            I will also say that I will be very interested to see where Hoffman goes with his argument, because it sounds to me like it may avoid the weaknesses I find in most historicists’ arguments. Of course, if there was ever a case of the pot calling the kettle black, it’s Hoffman criticizing anyone for “scoring points.”

          • Paul says quite clearly that he persecuted Christians prior to becoming one himself. I do not find it persuasive that he did so in the absence of some impression regarding who the individual was that Christians claimed to be the anointed one and what he did.

          • He knew that Jesus rose from the dead, an event which Paul believed marked the beginning of the end times. That’s pretty darn impressive all by itself. There certainly could have been more, but we know that it didn’t come up in his letters if there was, which I would think is sufficient to preclude the argument that there was necessarily any more.

            I think the history of religious persecutions shows us that the perpetrators often lack a clear picture of what it is that their victims actually believe. Often, the people who carry out the persecution have been induced to do so by someone in power who needs a scapegoat for reasons unrelated to the victim’s actual beliefs, e.g., Nero. As Paul never tells us why he persecuted Christians prior to his conversion, I don’t think we can infer too much about what he thought or knew about Jesus at the time.