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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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