TalkHistoricity Wiki and Other Mythicism-Related News

TalkHistoricity Wiki and Other Mythicism-Related News January 5, 2013

I’ve created a Wiki so that those who wish to work collaboratively on developing content for the project “TalkHistoricity: An Index of Mythicist Claims” can do so. It is located on Wikia and a link is embedded here. Once there are people actually using it, I can see whether there is a need to put restrictions in place or take any other measures to ensure that it is a place where those trying to assist with this project can collaborate unhindered. If you are interested in being involved but have difficulties with the Wiki platform, please do let me know! In the mean time, it was suggested that it might be useful for me to organize my previous posts on mythicism. I may do that, but I think that I will first try to see whether I/we can come up with an outline for the index of mythicist claims (which should be prefaced with a simple and brief explanation of the mainstream historical case). After that, I will see if I can adapt, edit, and update any of my earlier posts to serve as part of the content of the new we materials.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Joseph Hoffmann explains why he is persuaded that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. James Tabor also commented on it.

Richard Carrier mentions that he has completed a finished draft of his book On The Historicity of Jesus Christ.

Jerry Coyne and John Loftus mention that it is possible to watch the whole movie Religulous online. I mentioned after I first watched the movie several years ago that Maher’s uncritical acceptance of mythicist misinformation garnered from the internet spoils its message about critical thinking. As was recently pointed out to me, Stephen Fry repeated similarly problematic claims regarding Mithras and Christmas a few years ago.

This Bart Ehrman radio comment on the matter is also worth including, even though it is from a few years ago, since there may still be people who haven’t heard it:

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  • William J E Dempsey

    Clearly this Wiki is not founded and overseen, by an impartial scholar who desires to hear both sides of the Mythicist/Historicist impartially: the illustration for the announcement of this Wiki, is a picture that offers a “does not equal” sign, between an Egyptian god (Horus?), and Jesus. Clearly evidencing a negative bias against Mythicism, right from the very start.
    While of course, Dr. McGrath’s longstanding opposition to Mythicism is already well known.

    • It is being overseen by a scholar who does not buy the “teach both sides” arguments used by creationists, mythicists, Holocaust-deniers and others in the same vein. The aim of the project is to address pseudoscholarly claims, not treat bunk as though it is another viewpoint with equal merit to the results of professional scholarship by historians and other experts.

      • William J E Dempsey

        1) And never mind that generations of professional historians in effect often took an oath to have “faith” in Jesus, in their churches? “Faith” meaning, in dictionary definition, “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof” (Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.).

        Most historians know that the limits of their objective knowledge run out at some point. And in the matter of religion especially, they often in their private lives and churches, acknowledged they wanted to follow something for which there was little or no objective – “worldly” – evidence. So in their church vows to follow Jesus with “faith,” they in effect confess to giving up on objective history.

        2) Then too, corroborating and amplifying my point? If you read many works of historians, you will find some subtle but important caveats, if and when they speak of Jesus at all. In some texts for example, if he is mentioned at all in a history survey, he is mentioned as a “legend.” Which is a technical term in the social sciences; signifying somethign which is “reputed” to be historically true, but cannot be proven to be so.

        • You keep making the same tired points, but the matter has been investigated in the modern era, when historians have had no hesitation challenging the assumptions of faith. Indeed, many take great delight in doing so. Why do you find it so hard to accept what is the essentially unanimous conclusion of secular historians? Why do you prefer to attribute ulterior motives and conspiracies to them, when the evidence of their openness to evidence that undermines Christian claims is overwhelming and obvious?

          • William J E Dempsey

            I’m stunned by your inaccurate generalizations. SOME modernist historians challenged “faith”; but obviously many others did not. If you find many supporting an historical Jesus? I suggest you are quoting those who did not. And there are still many. Consider even yourself: do you never in a community prayer, repeat in effect an oath of loyalty to “faith”?

            All too many follow “faith”fully. While the rest are rather undercover: they refer obliquely say, to the “legend” of Jesus. While others never really discuss the appearance of Jesus; but only the effects of the, to be sure, very real church.

            Few historians get VERY explicit on this.

            Why? Consider the effect of ostracising, until VERY recently, for any professor who denies Jesus prominently. Some do this; but with recently, as much as 90-95% of the US population being professing Christians, it made life difficult for a professor, among students, to prominently deny the historicality of Jesus. No need for “conspiracy” theory here: just standard Social pressures.

            Why can’t you address sociological aspects? Social pressure for conformity? I’m amazed continually at the continued provinciality and “faith-based” thinking I see in religious departments; their lack of REAL awareness of “social” factors, so late in our era.

            Why would anyone even embrace an “historical Jesus,” who did not quite believe in it himself? As Bultmann (?) noted, it is a convenient compromise position: those who maintain at least the minimal “Jesus is real”/historical, can then go on to say anything negative they want to say after that about Christianity; with always the “out” that they after all, still “believe in Jesus.”

            The position is retained … because it is politically, sociologically, convenient.

            Or for that matter too? Because it is in many ways, SIMPLER than Mythicism. Over and over, religious historians complain that the notion of composite accretion is just too complicated for them to believe or wrap their mind around. (As Goodacre recently confessed in a radio interview).

            It was always very easy to say that a magical guy in the sky, did everything; in our era, it is all to easy to say that a wonderful real person did it all. Each “solution,” is all too simple.

            The truth is complex. Invocations of “Occam’s Razor” merely cater to oversimplification.

          • I’m not stunned, but disappointed, that after more than a year of your commenting here making inaccurate assertions about what historians say about Jesus and how they approach their craft, you still seem not to have actually read any. How about we not discuss things in comments until you’ve read what some secular historians have to say about Jesus, and/or about how they approach these subjects in general? I’m not likely to persuade you that you are mischaracterizing an entire discipline, if you aren’t willing to actually consult historians themselves.

          • William J E Dempsey

            I’m nonplussed that you consistently invoke “conspiracy theories.” And make no acknowledgement whatsoever of masses of sociological material that show that almost nothing is more socially coercive in a culture, than Religion. Thus you are mischaracterizing or ignoring, the entire discipline of Sociology. And radically underestimating the influence of norm- and mores-enforcement, even in an academic community.
            And? You haven’t answered this question: have you yourself ever taken in effect, an oath of “faith,” in your church?

          • I do not take “oaths of faith” in church or elsewhere. I am committed to the critical, evidence-based investigation of historical questions related to the Bible as a professional in my field.

            You still seem clearly not to have read what actual historians write about these topics.

          • William J E Dempsey

            It seems to me that so long as you affirm yourself as a church-going, Sunday-School-teaching Christian, your assertions of total objectivity in yourself, and/or in historian’s positing of an “historical Jesus,” are simply untenable.

            1) You claim to be motivated solely by rational concerns. But you are presumably a member of a church. So when the preacher in your church leads the congregation in a prayer that says something like, “O Lord! We affirm our faith in you,” etc.? What do you do? Do you repeat it; or cross your fingers behind your back; or what, exactly?

            The fact is that almost every church out there, will stress “faith” often. In its a) official position; in its b) sermons; in c) its prayers. It seems to me all-but-impossible that you yourself therefore, have not followed “faith” to a degree. If you have ever attended church for very long.

            If you continue to insist that you yourself cross your fingers when the word “faith” comes up in church – wouldn’t that make you rather unique?

            2) Are academics, historians, objective about, or even antagonistic to, “The Faith” proper noun? It remains to be seen how antagonistic they are; keeping in mind that an “historical Jesus” could be at least, a partial concession to religious pressure.

            I’m suggesting that the positing of an Historical Jesus, at times seems to distance itself entirely from traditional Christianity; but viewed more closely, it amounts to a convenient fig leaf for atheism; it allows the academic to affirm at least SOME kind of belief in SOME kind of Jesus. Even an historian that is quite critical of institutional Christianity and so forth, can at least say, when confronted by angry Christian mobs, that some kind of minimal “Jesus is Real.”

            At bottom therefore, the acceptance of the Historical Jesus – as Bultmann or others suggested – is actually, not entirely objective, or antagonistic to Christianity either; but is a small but significant bow, a concession, to it.

            Even many our seemingly most “objective” and even seemingly antagonistic/atheist scholars, (especially religious, not secular historians) finally bowed in part, in some minimal way. And their allowance of the “historical Jesus,” is their minimal but significant concession to religious pressure.

            As any sociologist or anthropologist could predict.

            Your claim of perfect objectivity, in yourself and other scholars, is not credible. However rational and even atheistic some appear, we still find some of them attending church on the sly. Or making concessions to them. And perhaps? Sometimes even forgetting to cross their fingers when the preacher leads them in prayers, affirming “faith” in Jesus.

          • Why do you quote Bultmann, another church-going Christian? You clearly have no more sense of the range of possible Christianities than you do of what goes on in the academy. And you clearly are not interested in having a conversation, since your references to “total objectivity” are not something that I have said, or any serious scholar would say.

            Are you going to stop being silly and waasting my time, and actually discuss what I and other scholars have to say? Or do I have to ignore you as skmeone who is clearly only here to waste my time and that of others?

          • William J E Dempsey

            So simply summarize what you want to say.

            It has been clear to me that you and Ehrmann though, often in effect claim total objectivity. When you say that “there is no doubt that” Jesus was historically real. That clearly IS an absolutistic claim. (Though to be sure elsewhere, you far more moderately suggest that you see room for a “principled agnosticism” regarding Historical Jesus.)

            Bultmann and others in effect I would say, were in a compromised position; a useful – but indeed, not totally objective or satisfactory – avatar or precursor of Mythicism proper. Their church attendance – and in effect implied adoption of some irrational “faith” – did finally, compromise their academic integrity. As far as most secular scholars are concerned; those outside religious programs, and churches.
            And finally the chief marks of those compromised academic values in Religious Study, are first 1) the obvious compromise of objective, real secular Historical values. In 2) favor of the obviously silly special pleadings of the Criteria, and so forth. And 3) the ultimate result of watered down “historical” standards, is the embrace of a minimal but allegedly “historical” Jesus; even in the absence of any real confirmation, until c. 110 AD or so. Where only a movement based on Christ could be confirmed; not Christ himself.
            Rather than raw insults and bare name-dropping assertions, would you mind proving your case, with coherent self-sufficient arguments? Religious scholars it seems, are over-satisfied with mere (and questionable) citation of Authority, rather than actual closely-reasoned argumentation.

    • the_Siliconopolitan

      Given that the claims that Jesus is supposedly derivative of Horus have been decidedly refuted, using the does-not-equal sign seems perfectly reasonable.

      If you want a wiki that does not engage critically with evidence and scholarship, nothing is stopping you from making such a one. That’s the beauty of the Internet.

      • William J E Dempsey

        What if I want a Wiki that pretends to be “objective,” to really be that?

      • William J E Dempsey

        Why take any negative evidence, against just one of Popular Mythicism’s assertions, as emblematic?
        By the way: popular Mythicism to be sure, is only going to be slightly better than Popular Christianity. Let’s look at the scholarly stuff instead.
        Impartiality on McGrath’s Wiki would have been nice.
        But maybe it is good, now that I mention it, that your Wiki announces its biased point of view, right away, and up front.

        • Ian

          ” Let’s look at the scholarly stuff instead.” – is there any work that isn’t self-published by people without relevant qualifications? Isn’t it a bit like saying “biologists should engage with scholarly creationism”? I mean, even if you think Mythicism is right, it is hardly uncontroversial to say that it is not a scholarly movement, surely? Quite the opposite: its central force seems to be the accusation that scholarship on the matter is ideologically biased.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Dr. Joe Hoffmann over on the “New Oxonian” – Hoffmann PhD, Harvard U – is correctly noting that earlier – especially German – scholarship effectively removed one item after another from the Jesus legend as “hsitorical”; leaving a very minimal “Historical” Jesus indeed. Much scholarship gave up the Historical in fact; and spoke only of the “Church” or “theological” invention, as worthy of discussion. Joe himself continues to look for an Historical Jesus; but he knows its history of failure well.

            Mythicism therefore borrows on this MASSIVE tradition of scholarship; and just posits that the last remaing, tiny bit, is fated too. Today, most scholars regard Jesus as 90% myth at least. The score now is 9 to 1; and the 1 is likely to be disqualified; given so many obvious signs of cheating on that side (Fake promises of miracles; unreliable and contradictory gospels; etc.).

          • That’s no how history works, and if you know anything at all about the subject, you know that. Each piece of evidence is assessed on its own merits. For many famous people from antiquity, there is more legend than historically-confirmable information. It is not a sports game. It is a serious historical inquiry, and it is possible to include that 9/10 is myth and 1/10 is historical.

            That said, in the case of Jesus, there is some clear myth, and some clear historical data, and a great deal that is simply not placeable with a high degree of confidence in the one category or the other.

  • Just Sayin’

    I suggest short biographies of previous figures of some (minor) scholarly note who believed Jesus did not exist, thereby setting today’s mythicism in historical context. Two that come to mind are Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), who might even be described as “the father of Mythicism” and Albert Kalthoff, one of Harnack’s critics.

  • the_Siliconopolitan

    Looking forward to seeing this.

    Will you only be dealing with bad mythicism, or will bad historicism get a scolding, too?

    I saw Hoffman link to a critique of Doherty the other day, that took the latter to task for accepting Q and using it in his argument. Given that Ehrman does the same thing, he should be in for a take-down as well.

    (I accept Goodacre’s defence of the Farrer-hypothesis, and I seriously hope to see the consensus change within my lifetime, because I honestly would like to see work on what Matthew‘s sources might have been, but until the artificial division into Q and M material is done away with, I doubt that will be possible.)

    • The reason for criticizing Doherty’s use of the Q hypothesis is that Q is more hypothetical by far than the existence of a historical Jesus. His acceptance of the consensus regarding the one but not the other thus proves highly ironic, as well as self-defeating.

      • Mark Erickson

        What? If you accept one consensus, you aren’t expected to automatically accept another. Even if the appeal to consensus was valid, which of course it’s not, Doherty has read enough of the literature to make up his own mind on what hypotheses to favor for any given question.

        A separate question, isn’t the existence of Q tangled up in the existence of a historical Jesus? I know you would base your case on just Pauline epistles, but aren’t they at least somewhat related? Or are you considering that the evidence for an oral tradition dating back to the 30’s is solid enough without evidence for a written source?

        • the_Siliconopolitan

          “Tangled up in”?

          I don’t think a Q-source need be predicated on a historical Jesus, but the International Q project does indeed seem think that they can discover the words of such a person, yes. Do forgive me if I’ve misunderstood their aim.

          • Mark Erickson

            The point is that if Mark is Matthew and Luke’s only written source, doesn’t that make a HJ less likely?

      • the_Siliconopolitan

        Forgive me for being slow, but I don’t get that. Unless the irony is that when he finally uses the consensus, it is false. I guess that’s a point.

        As I think I’ve said elsepost, I don’t necessarily deny the existence of a historical Jesus, but I’m more than skeptical that we can excavate his teaching. Demonstrating the non-existence of Q certainly doesn’t help in that regard.

        That said, Matthew may be based on a Q-like source, but making reference to Luke doesn’t help to discover such a sayings-tradition.

        I have to agree that a historical Jesus makes sense of the (some of) the evidence, but it’s always easier to fit a hypothesis with more variables, so from a pseudo-mathematical point of view, any model that takes care of the same evidence without a real person is to be preferred.

        More interestingly, accepting a historical Jesus, what can we know about him and his teaching, and how much must we attribute to Paul?

        • from a pseudo-mathematical point of view, any model that takes
          care of the same evidence without a real person is to be preferred.

          I wonder if you could flesh that idea out a bit for me? I’ve seen various people advance an appeal to Occam’s Razor in the historicist / mythicist debate, but I struggle to see how it could usefully be applied elsewhere, at least in the form I’ve seen it expressed.

          More interestingly, accepting a historical Jesus, what can we know
          about him and his teaching, and how much must we attribute to Paul?
          It’s a much more interesting question, I agree.

      • steven

        McGrath will be blaming mythicists for using punctuation next, which is what real scholars do, not pseudo-scholars. (Paul Regnier already lambasts mythicists for putting in footnotes in their books)

        • As ever Steve, I invite you to provide an in-context quote from something I’ve actually said to sustain your silly accusation.

      • Are you still repeating this non sequitur? Your point would only be valid if Doherty rejected the historicity of Jesus on the grounds that the arguments for him are hypothetical. But come on, Doctor, you have read his book, haven’t you? So you do know that is not the reason he rejects the historicity of Jesus. So your attempt to set up his acceptance of Q bears no relation to irony whatever. None so blind as those who will not see.

  • steven

    Bart Ehrman wrote a book that McGrath praised to the skies.
    It is called ‘Did Jesus Exist?’.

    Rather amazingly, despite a top mainstream Biblical scholar writing a much-praised book ‘demolishing’ mythicists, McGrath knows he can’t use it to bash mythicists over the heads with and is forced to try to come up with a Wiki.

    He’s looked at the book, read it and thought ‘I’m going to need something else.’

    But if Ehrman’s book was so ineffective at presenting a case for the historical Jesus, that people like McGrath just don’t use it when dealing with mythicists, what makes him think he will do a better job than Ehrman?

    • arcseconds

      Gee, you’re right. There’s just no way a publicly accessible, constantly updated, collaborative website could ever have any advantages over a statically published book (requiring purchase) by a single author!

      Guess those wikipedia people are wasting their time. In fact, one wonders why anyone wrote wiki software in the first place.

      Apparently there won’t ever be any new mythicist arguments, though, so that makes things a bit simpler.

    • Claude

      Steven, you’re grasping. Why be so curmudgeonly about a new venue devoted to your (apparently) favorite subject. This wiki is a welcome development; thanks Prof. McGrath.

      • steven

        So McGrath will do a much better job than Bart? How come such a leading scholar wasn’t able to write something that historicists could actually use?

        While mythicists like Carrier get stuff published in peer-reviewed journals that you can bet will be used…..

        • Claude

          I’m not going down the rabbit hole with that trash talk.

          • steven

            Trash talk? Pointing out that McGrath is just not using Bart’s book, although he claims that mythicism is easy to refute?

            If mythicism was easy to refute, why are mythicists not being beaten over the head with Ehrman’s book?

          • If more people read books by scholars, there most likely wouldn’t be a need to try to reach people in the domain of the intrnet, where pseudoscholarly nonsense prevails no matter how many scholars have addressed the subject in books.

          • Susan Burns

            Dr. McGrath, Not only have I read hundreds of books by mainstream scholars but I have also have purchased them rather than borrowing. Therefore, I have put money into their pockets. But it is hard to take a lot of them seriously when their baseline premise is that the tomb was empty because of bodily resurrection. I also read mainstream science. But when their baseline premise is that homo sapien sapien evolved on the savannah carrying around large-headed infants it is hard to take them seriously. I am compelled to look elsewhere.

          • Charles Ormsbee

            Why not use Ehrman’s book? I can think of at least one topic he brought up that drove mythicists crazy. Three words: vatican brass cock

          • Susan Burns

            AB is a much more ancient husbander than PTR. The Afro-Asiatic AB is associated with bottom of feet, back of calves, thighs and buttocks. Also, I have read Ehrman and also read his blog but he does not tell me what I want to know.

          • Claude


  • Ian

    I’m not sure I’d be too harsh on Fry. The program this was on, QI, has its whole premise as having the obvious answer be somehow wrong. There have been a lot of segments where the supposed right answer is very dubious, and at the very least relies on one or two scholars. The fact is, a version of the “25th Dec” claim is found in Vermaseren, undeniably one of the most important scholars of Mithras. That this particular idea has been discredited, and that Mithraic studies has moved on since the 1960s, is perhaps forgiveable if you’re trying to get dozens of these gags in each 30mins episode.

  • Steven Carr

    After just 3 months, James McGrath has already put everything he has ever said that is worthwhile on to these wiki pages. An impressive job, James.

    • Soon after I set the wiki up, it was clear that there was a very small number of people with enthusiasm for working on it, and that those people had very different ideas about what they wanted the wiki to be. I know it is hard for mythicists to accept that addressing their pseudoscholarly claims is not anyone’s top priority, but that has more to do with mythicists’ inflated sense of their importance rather than anything else.

    • Steven, you’ll be thrilled to know that I’m planning on adding some material to the wikis over the next couple of weeks. Your ever-constructive feedback will be much appreciated.

    • OK, to get the ball rolling and hopefully stimulate others to contribute to the wiki, I’ve drafted a quick introduction to mythicism here:

      Any comments, corrections etc before I add it to the wiki would be greatly welcomed.