Mythicists at Long Last Ready to Embrace Mainstream Historical Methods Like Divination?

Mythicists at Long Last Ready to Embrace Mainstream Historical Methods Like Divination? January 22, 2013

There have been a couple of amusing posts over at Vridar. In one of them, Neil Godfrey discusses Daniel Boyarin’s claim (in his book The Jewish Gospels) that there may have been an expectation about a suffering Messiah prior to Christianity. Whatever your thoughts on this (the view is not unique to Boyarin, but neither is it a view that most find compelling), what is really interesting is to see a mythicist apparently embracing mainstream historical reasoning.

Boyarin is quoted as saying,

My reasoning is that if this were such a shocking thought, how is it that the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, only a couple of centuries later, had no difficulty whatever with portraying the Messiah’s vicarious suffering or discovering him in Isaiah 53, just as followers of Jesus had done? (pp. 134-35)

If one agrees with Boyarin that the Talmud can give us a sense of what Jews believed centuries earlier, when studied critically with use of deductive reasoning, then one cannot be consistent and deny that the same can be done with the Gospels, especially given the much shorter time between them and the historical Jesus. Of course, Godfrey has yet to show that sort of consistency, but one can hope. Who knows? He might even, if he finds Boyarin persuasive, come to share Boyarin’s view that there was a historical Jesus!

In the other of his recent posts that I alluded to above, Godfrey cites a book I have mentioned in discussions with him and other mythicistsFrom Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. One reason I love the book is perhaps because mythicists seem not to be able to find any phrase they can latch onto in it, in a vain attempt to argue that mainstream historians would support their own case, without ending up accomplishing the opposite.

Godfrey offers the following quote, among others:

It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that one of the historian’s principal tasks is to uncover the original purpose of functions of the relics of testimonies that have come down to posterity, to divine what use they were intended to serve and what purposes they actually served at the time they were created. (p. 18)

Note the reference to the need to “divine” the intention and purpose of texts. I assume that one need not have a degree in religious studies to know what divination is. The use here is metaphorical, of course, and in that usage denotes the use of intuition and deduction to puzzle out meaning. Exactly the sort of work that historians have done on the Gospels to deduce their context and setting, which mythicists consistently ignore or even denigrate.

One of the great things about the internet these days is how many books are available online in at least preview form. From Reliable Sources is one of them, and so I encourage readers interested in the historical figure of Jesus to have a read of the section from which Godfrey quotes. Read the relevant pages around the quote offered above. But also don’t miss p.141, where they refer to Christ as a historical figure!

One could read both of Godfrey’s posts and never realize that he is quoting mainstream scholars whose methods and conclusions are incompatible with the claims of mythicists. You might not realize that the impression one gets from reading those books is very different from the impression you’ll get reading snippets of them embedded in and filtered through the lens of a mythicist blog post. And so I encourage you to check the sources and read them for yourselves. If you do, I am confident you will understand why I continue to find mythicism thoroughly unpersuasive.

Elsewhere on the web of related interest:

Joseph Hoffmann responds to Jerry Coyne.

Paul Regnier discussed denialism.

Andrew Perriman is reviewing Richard Horsley’s recent book.

One news source is reporting that Thomas Brodie is being disciplined by the church for his mythicist views.

Jeremy Myers shows just how much conservative Christians despise historical-critical study of the Bible.

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  • Interesting article.

  • Godfrey is not representative of all ‘mythicists’ (he’s only the ‘best’ of them, apparently).

  • Claude

    I, too, found it funny that Godfrey wrote “only” two hundred years. Suddenly two hundred years is but a short remove! I was left to wonder what else the Talmud had to say about a suffering Messiah. Presumably Boyarin offers further evidence that the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was “entrenched” in Judaic thought long before Christianity. It sounds very interesting. Meanwhile, I felt like there was supposed to be something controversial about Godfrey’s Boyarin excerpts, but I didn’t find them all that startling. I know the mythicists are gunning for the “criterion of embarrassment” and all that, but still. What am I missing?

    Godfrey posts a lot of interesting stuff, and naturally he’ll enlist scholarship in his cause, but, yeah. As the mythicists might say: de omnibus dubitandum.

  • Thanks for the plug!

    • Sorry for not being subscribed to your blog’s feed sooner!!!

  • Wfenio

    Dr. Mcgrath. 
    I was just wondering, do you find Richard Carrier’s Bayesian methodolgy to be valid or correct?  If not, what is wrong with it in your opinion?  just curious.  thanks.

  • steven

    Even by James’s standards, this is a stretch.

    I guess the stories of the child Jesus killing a companion were written in less time after Jesus lived than Talmudic stories of a suffering Messiah.

    That means they must be true.

     If you do, I am confident you will understand why I continue to find mythicism thoroughly unpersuasive.

    James cleverly avoids the fallacy of argument from authority by referencing somebody who is not an authority – namely, himself.

  • Susanburns

    Two hundred years is a very short time indeed!  Many of the original Old Testament stories were cantillated odes before writing. After development of writing, these stories were embellished. An example would be the Exodus Song of the Sea.

    • Claude

      Was this remark directed at me? If not, I apologize.

      The issue was Neal’s consistency, not the literary time span.

  • Would someone like to explain to me what my posts had to do with mythicism? Is anyone here capable of distinguishing the questions of Christian origins from mythicism per se, and from addressing questions of methodology without getting hung up about mythicism vs historicism?

    • Claude

      In regard to the Boyarin post, might it have something to do with the argument that the crucifixion must be historical because Jesus’s early followers wouldn’t have invented a crucified Messiah.

  • Brettongarcia


    Dr. McGrath?

    You have often
    argued or assumed that Historicism is based on clear, objective,
    standard historical reasoning. And yet? You have just noted too, that
    it is being reported today that Mythicist Thom Brodie is being
    disciplined by his Church for his Mythicist views.

    disciplining of Tom Brodie of course clearly suggests, as a case in
    point, that religious pressure, bias from believers, is indeed often
    brought against Mythicists; thus biasing the field of HJ studies,

    Historians are
    supposed to look at actual examples: here’s one happening right now.
    As it seems in at least preliminary reports.

    Though of
    course, like true Historians, we’re waiting for verification of the
    Brodie story, the early indications here are not good for your
    constant assertions of the objectivity of Historicism.

    • Again? Seriously? How many times must I emphasize that mainstream scholarship is what is done at secular universities, and some seminaries. Religious institutions often reject mainstream scholarship, and occasionally fringe scholarship as in the case of Brodie, but their approach is different than what one finds in secular universities. Scholars would critically evaluate Brodie’s claims, not suspend him for disagreeing with church dogma.

      Why do you find it so hard to grasp this? Have you ever studied at a secular university?

      • Brettongarcia

        If Brodie is silenced by his Church, then in effect it may be that his career is cancelled; and even secular universities may lose many possible future books from him. 

        Again:  what happens even in confessional/religious institutions, effects scholarship overall; even in non-confessional colleges.

        Once again, my point is sustained:  religious bias, even censorship, extends much further into religious studies than you think.  Even into secular institutions.

  • divine verb
    Definition of DIVINE
    transitive verb
    1 : to discover by intuition or insight : infer

    Jens Schroter,  Chair and Professor of Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament and New Testament Apocrypha at the Humboldt University, explains in a recently published book on methods of historical Jesus study:

    “The idea of formulating certain “criteria” for an evaluation of historical sources is a
    peculiar phenomenon in historical critical Jesus research. It was established in the course of the twentieth century as a consequence of the form-critical idea of dividing Jesus accounts of the Gospels into isolated parts of tradition, which would be examined individually with regard to their authenticity.

    “Such a perspective was not known to the Jesus research of the nineteenth century and it does not, to my knowledge, appear in other strands of historical research.

    “In analysing historical material scholars would usually ask for their origin and character, their tendencies in delineating events from the past, evaluate their principal credibility — for example, whether it is a forgery or a reliable source — and use them together with other sources to develop a plausible image of the concerned period of history.”

    What fascinates me is the question of Christian origins. If we find there was an historical Jesus there as the best explanation of all the evidence, then that’s great. But please let’s use valid methodology to get there. Don’t just start with an untested assumption. If the methods I speak of are invalid, then by all means demonstrate that — but just laughing because they don’t automatically produce the results you want is only making you look like buffoons.

    Oh, and by the way, 200 years is a very long time but it’s also a very short time. How long would one expect for a major shift in the general mainstream view of Judaism over a critical thing like a suffering messiah? I don’t know. But we should think the question through. All this knee-jerk reaction is just puerile silliness.

  • Susanburns

    Perhaps biblical scholars received their blind spot from their religious indoctrination in childhood. This is something a secular education cannot combat entirely.

  • Brettongarcia

    The admission here of a “divine”ing aspect to History in any case, further suggests a too-subjective/intuitive aspect in much of it.   (Specifically allowing later writings in Christianity, to serve as evidence about early Christology).  This is why some of us are interested finally in better scholarship; in better, more objective History.  One no longer overly influenced by all-too-much “devine”ing.

    In the meantime, if many Historians are admitting a subjective element in what they do, this in turn suggests that quoting even secular History as strong authority, would not be correct.

    As a matter of fact Hoffmann over on his blog, has been attacking 1) “facts,” 2) “logic,” and is seemingly embracing 3) mere “plausibility,” as if that was the same as real 4) History. 

    Finally in fact, it seems that Hoffmann like many others before him, is really admitting and even embracing, 5) the Myth of Christianity, as myth.  Acknowledging it was a legend built up by Paul and others – but then supporting the story anyway.  So that finally?  Hoffmann or others of that school would be in effect, Mythicists.  Though of a more positive variety.  They admit Jesus is a myth; but then they embrace the truth of myths.

    In other words?  Even Hoffmann in effect, is a kind of Mythicist.  In spite of himself.  He knows it’s a myth; he just likes the story anyway.  Even though he suspects it was made up. 

    There is truth in Fiction to be sure.  But my point here:  we should not call it “History.”

    • Claude

      This is a hamfisted misrepresentation of Hoffmann’s essay.

      Hoffmann isn’t “attacking “facts.” He makes a distinction between truth and a collection of facts. He even offers an explicit example! Did you skip that part?Plausibility is determined as a condition for the HJ project. In other words, there is no point to arguing for historicity if a plausibly historical figure can’t be identified in the Gospels. If you have a gripe with him on this front then you must argue that none of the portraits of Jesus that emerge from the Gospels are plausible as historical figures. That would nip the thing in the bud.

      You impute to Hoffmann your own conviction that because Jesus is shrouded in myth that he is therefore mythical. Hoffmann’s process is designed to refute, not “embrace,” that position. Are you suggesting that Hoffmann is willing to stake his reputation by playing devil’s advocate?

      They admit Jesus is a myth; but then they embrace the truth of myths.

      “They” admit that the “Christ of faith” is a myth but allow for the possibility that Jesus existed.

      He knows it’s a myth; he just likes the story anyway.

      This is the kind of junk mythicists throw around while affecting to be models of dispassionate criticism.

  • Brettongarcia


    Good to hear
    from you; sorry you find a few things to disagree with here. To be
    sure, I briefly invoked the idea of “dispassionate”
    scholarship here. And though now and then I’ll depart from it myself
    – as seems appropriate on a passionate Internet – still, I like to
    think that there’s a solid structure of reasoning and knowledge under
    most of my remarks; one that should be usually be evident even under
    my occasional rhetoric, I hope.

    My remarks
    above are addressed not just to Hoffmann’s latest blog post in
    particular – but also to what I know of him over the past few months
    of occasional interaction. You may know his history from the History
    books in fact: originally a sort of Mythicist, he headed a Jesus
    Project that attemped to establish the historicity of Jesus. But that
    project according to his own admission, unable to establish the
    historicity of Jesus (nor refute it either, to be sure). Strictly
    speaking though, it would seem that he is therefore not quite an

    HOw good is
    his historiographical method? One of the main objections that
    Mythicists have to Historicts, is their “special”
    self-generated methodology; which is not consistent with real
    History. As I currently understand Hoffman’s methodology, he is in
    fact describing a typically historicist “soft” methodology.
    He seems to be rather liberal, believing that “facts” and
    “logic” are not as simple (or relevant?) as they seem; that
    they need some contextualization. Which may amount to a “special
    pleading” vis-a-vis straight historiography. But on the positive
    side, like most historicists – even his own recent article – he is
    honest enough to acknowledge that solid historical fact, documents,
    are just not there, in this ancient timeframe. And he fortunately
    seems to be dodging the now-discredited Criteria of Authenticity; in
    favor of the some-what more acceptable “Plausiblity”

    Still? Even by
    Hoffmann’s own admission, “real” historical information is
    just not there. While we are aiming at most for the moment, not at
    proven fact, or solid history; but mere “plausibility.”
    Which is not quite History, after all.

    One of the
    great sins of religious “historical” study, is that in the
    fact of lack of real historical evidence, they simply invented their
    own “special” “historical” methodology centered
    around the highly problematic “Criteria”; a method that has
    no real validity, as we are increasingly seeing. Though it was widely
    accepted (even by too-trusting secular historians?), for some time.

    And so, in the
    context of Hoffmann’s slighly earlier discussions of the distinction
    between the Jesus of history, vs. the Jesus of faith, of the church,
    and so forth? In light of his own confessed simple native, emotional
    liking for “stained glass” and churches, even above and
    beyond critical thinking on this subject? I speculate that in fact,
    though he has some attachment to religion, he is not really an
    Historicist. But is embracing Christianity to a degree … simply as
    Art, or compelling fiction. Or as a sort of “true” or
    attractive Myth.

    conclusion being to be sure, my deduction; rather than his own flat
    statement. But that seems consistent with his statements 1)
    confessing a vague (and erratic) sort of continuing attachment to
    religion in some emotional way; combined with 2) his confessed
    inability to prove – or know – Jesus existed historically. From that
    I conclude he accepts elements of Christianity only; and those only
    as convenient fictions; or myths.

    So my
    conclusion is that Hoffmann is ironically, actually, a sort of
    Mythicist. The positive kind however: one who believes it may all be
    a myth … but a myth that has some kind of positive truth in it. The
    way a good fictional story might be somehow “true” as well.

  • Claude


    Thank you for your gracious and generous reply. I appreciate it.

    I was aware that Hoffmann was involved in a Jesus Project that went off the rails (?) and that the current Process is his latest endeavor to grapple with the ever elusive historical Jesus. I don’t remember what bedeviled the Jesus Project (if I ever knew), so I’m not sure if it failed in its objectives or got dragged down by some kind of conflict. Since the mythicists drive Hoffmann nuts, though, I’d be surprised if he considers himself a fellow traveler.

    Believe me, I’m aware of the mythicist critique of HJ studies methodology. I read a bit about it during the Carrier-Ehrman firestorm but frankly lack the competence to enter the debate. My impression is that HJ methodology is constantly being evaluated and refined; at any rate, in this I defer to the scholars themselves.

    It seems “plausibility” is a stepping-off point and that Hoffmann will now start building his case. I’m aware that he and Maurice Casey and Stephanie Louise Fisher don’t endorse Ehrman’s defense of HJ, so it will be interesting to see where he goes. But since he’s unlikely to pull a birth certificate for Jesus the Messiah, City of David, out of his hat, I doubt skeptics will be satisfied.

    Your description of Hoffmann’s affection for the aesthetics of the church is very pretty. There really is no counterpart in secular life; the Christians have the best art! Still, I doubt nostalgia affects Hoffman’s intellectual convictions. There’s no way of knowing, at any rate.

    So. We shall see!

  • Claude


    I don’t know if you’ve read Hoffmann’s response to your objection that he is more or less equating plausibility to historicity, but just to confirm that I myself am not misrepresenting Hoffmann’s views:

    Who has equated plausibility with historicity. Not me. At the same time mythical and legendary figures are normally totally implausible, so establishing context (etc.) becomes a precondition for any serious discussion of historicity.