The “But Keith and Le Donne are Christians” Argument Against Mythicism

The “But Keith and Le Donne are Christians” Argument Against Mythicism January 24, 2013

Mythicists can try one’s patience, but if you hang in there, they will consistently reward your patience with laugh-out-loud comedy.

An example from today:

Commenter BretonGarcia posted several comments on a recent post of mine, asserting that Christians are so biased that their results and even their views about methods are untrustworthy.

Instead, he suggested, one should accept the criticisms of classic methods like the criteria of authenticity, which have been offered by scholars such as Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne.

[sounds of chuckling]

I responded in a comment asking BG why Keith and Le Donne are considered by him to be trustworthy, when they are both Christians.

BG asked how I am so sure they are Christians (sorry Anthony and Chris, this guy obviously doesn’t read your blog, to say nothing of your books and other publications!)

He tried to suggest that Chris is an agnostic and Anthony is Jewish. 🙂

I know both of these scholars, and consider them friends. I will let them speak for themselves on this one, if they care to add more. But their credentials as Christians are no more in doubt than their credentials as stellar scholars. And it is only bias that insists that, if someone is an excellent scholar, then they must not be Christians.

And so I simply had to highlight this further example (they never seem to stop coming!) of how mythicists claim to be about countering bias, with rhetoric that might sound plausible and even well-intentioned if one doesn’t look too closely at what is being said and done. Yet when one does look closely, it seems that few mythicists stop to notice how their own biases might be leading them astray, or to ask how many of the scholars they quote mine to try to bolster their claims actually share the biases they claim undermine scholarship and make the the conclusions of Christian scholars by definition unreliable.

To be honest, I have sometimes suspected that the appeal of more postmodern approaches to the historical Jesus for some Christian scholars (and some Christians more generally) is precisely the way it allows one to circumvent the negative judgment pronounced on so much material on the basis  of criteria and the attempt to be as scientific as possible, in the tradition of positivism.

That anyone could think that the majority of Christians are huge fans of the classic methods and results of historical Jesus research just indicates what most of us already knew: mythicists are not as acquainted with the history of scholarship in this field as a student of the subject is expected to be. And those who think that they can dismiss a field of which they do not even have a student’s knowledge are referred to as cranks.

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  • anthony

    positively droll.

  • Claude

    Aww, I want to stick up for Brettongarcia. He’s given this stuff a lot of thought, and sometimes I’ll emerge from the trance his rhythmic posts have lulled me into with interesting points to ponder, or even insights. But BG, sometimes you let your convictions filter out evidence that contradicts your views! We all do it.

  • Michael Wilson

    I came to the conclusion that these guys are screw ballz of the 2+2=3 variety. Regarding the issue of bias, it is something one should take ito account, but again objective facts re objectives so on can judge an argument by its contents. I mean maybe I say farts stink because I don’t like them, but if you don’t believe me smell for your self.  Mythicist are the sort of people that will inhale farts all day with a smile just to avoid admiting your right.

    James, please keep in mind that when Christians say something that undermines the case for a historical Jesus we can assume they are telling the truth because of the criteria of embarasmentwhich is only valid when it supports conclusions we know to be true because we are The Unbiased Few. 

  • steven

    Oh dear, McGrath and Regnier regularly throw out accusations that the only reason anybody could not fail to be impressed by the pioneering methods of Biblical scholars is simple anti-Christian bias.

    And then laugh at mythicists for pointing out that there are Christians who scoff at McGrath’s methods.

    How’s your Wikipedia entry getting on?  Can’t find anything that will stand up in the public domain?

    • arcseconds


      Have you actually read the lead up to this post?

      Breton Garcia has indicated on at least a couple of occasions that Christians cannot be trusted with biblical scholarship due to bias.

      And he has made a rather interesting slip: he’s cited Keith and Le Donne approvingly, and when McGrath pointed out that they’re Christian, he denied they were.

      McGrath is really just turning the tables on Garcia, and this odd manœuvre of Garcia’s he’s describing as resulting from bias.  Perhaps it’s not completely clear that it is, but it does seem to need some explanation.  It’s pretty obvious that McGrath knows these guys personally, and if he thinks they’re Christian they probably are.  Explaining it in terms of bias is at least plausible, and certainly no worse than anything Garcia’s said about McGrath.

      So, do you also think Garcia’s accusations of bias are silly?  Or is it OK for mythicists to accuse biblical scholars of bias, but not the other way around?

  • Chris Keith

    Oh goodness this has made my day. 

  • Brettongarcia

    I do not want to – as McGrath insists on doing – examine personalities and individuals and the nature of their faith here.  I reluctantly deal with individuals here –  because McGrath insisted. 

    Rather than speak of individuals, let’s speak of overall trends:  I do not say that each and every Christian in the world, is absolutely faith-baised; but clearly many are.  But what does a commitment to “faith” mean?

    With Christians, with those who espouse “faith,” we are not merely dealing with 1)  persons with an ideological commitment to Jesus; we are dealing with many 2)  persons, who have implicitly renounced and denounced objective evidence; the core of scholarly method. 

    Every Sunday, all over the world, hundreds of millions of Christians listen to sermons, and repeat prayers, that assure us that we must follow Jesus with total “faith”; which by dictionary definition, and as defined by countless sermons, means “believing in something for which there is no objective evidence.” 

     But what does this mean?  By espousing “faith,” many (not all) Christians first of all 1) affirm they don’t have material evidence; and 2) furthermore, indicate implicitly a bias against it.  Many of them are so committed to “FAITH,” that they are going to believe and have faith say, in a miraculous Jesus, his miracles … even though experiential and scientific evidence tell us over and over, that no one in real life can actually, literally, walk on water, or make bread appear out of thin air.  IF many don’t believe in miracles any more?  Most are clearly committed enough to faith, to continue to believe in Jesus, even when there is no historical evidence for him.

    It may be that 1) as everyone wants to say here, every group in the world, has a certain amount of bias.  But  here’s my main point:  2) how many groups take in effect, weekly oaths against facing objective evidence? How many of these groups explicitly attack the very idea of objective information and evidence – and then ask to be accepted as reliable scholars?

    There may be a few who call themselves Christians, who are able to put “faith” aside.  But let’s not let McGrath’s deliberate focus on emotional issues like  personality and individuals distract  us from our first important point:  1) the vast majority of persons who take these oaths of non-objectivity, what do you know, next dutifully inform us that “Jesus” exists;  even though there is no real historical evidence.   It is just a coincidence that all this happens?  It makes perfect sense, when you consider their faith-based orientation.  Before they arrived at this result, they took an oath that they would arrive at it.

    And our even more important point: 2)  though there has been a huge, crushing “faith” bias in the field to this very day,  fortunately, a very few but important scholars are recently, going against the trend.  And some are beginning to question the prevailing belief . 

    Specifically scholars like Le Donne and Keith  are rightly noting that the Historical  Criteria of Authenticity,  which McGrath loves, as the backbone of his faith, do not really make rational or historical sense.

    • arcseconds

      What has the behaviour of hundreds of millions of people who aren’t McGrath have to do with whether or not McGrath is biased?

      Are you running some kind of probabilistic argument here?

      And since when are the Historical Criteria of Authenticity the cornerstone of Christianity?   They’ve only been around for about a century, and Christianity is a lot older than that — and I’d wager most christians have never heard of them.

      I notice that you aren’t actually dealing with McGrath’s counter-argument, that the ‘criterion of embarrassment’ is widely used in historical studies, just not under that name.

       Why don’t you try engaging with McGrath’s argument, rather than repeating your scatter-gun accusations?

      • Brettongarcia

        I dealt with that. 

        In McGrath’s slightly earlier post.  On the accusations by a grad student in Sydney, of bias in Religious Studies programs.

    • Claude

      This is astonishing. The thing to say here is: I was wrong.

      • Brettongarcia

        I stand corrected in two minor matters:

        1) It seems that Dr. McGrath HDS found a secular, c. 1985 use of essentially, The Criterion of Embarassament.  Though I plead that indeed, it was apparently (in my brief survey of his reference) not offered under that name.

        2) I also speculated that Drs. Le Donne and Keith, “may” as I said, not be Christians; they recently affirmed themselves to be “card-carrying” ones in point of fact.  Though I noted my remark was in fact qualified as “speculation.”

        3) However? These are minor matters.  And I suspect that all the noise about this, is out of a desperate attempt to cover up my far more important subject here.

        What is the fire, under all this posturing smoke? 

        My noting specifically a fundamental and fatal  logical opposition, to protestations of objective scholarship in the Christian community –  generally or typically (in spite of occasional exceptions like Le Donne and Keith).

         Carefully note my qualifications here and elsewhere.  But in GENERAL, there are problems in “Christian” scholarship – developing directly out of the very concept and dictionary definition of “faith” itself.  Which by definition, stresses believing without material proofs.  Thus demonstrating a deep, fundamental, and even sworn antagonism in MANY (not all) Christian scholars.  To real scholarly objectivity.  Out of the nature of their “faith” itself.

        This is my important point.

        • Claude


          The thing is, this is not an isolated event. Why just the other day you complained that R. Joseph Hoffmann seeks “mere ‘plausibility,’ as if that was the same as real 4) History.” When it was pointed out to you that this is not what Hoffmann actually says, you veered off into your theory that Hoffmann is actually not a historicist but is so enchanted by Christian aesthetics and the power of the Christ story that he finds truth in what he “knows” is myth and that “Hoffmann is ironically, actually, a sort of Mythicist.” That would be ironic, since Hoffmann is in the process of writing a book arguing for the historicity of Jesus! Not only that, but when you confronted Hoffmann about the plausibility issue he explicitly rejected your take on it. I was honestly waiting for you to come back and say that you had discussed the matter with Hoffmann and that, yes, plausibility is meant to confirm historicity.

          These are not minor, but fundamental errors, and no amount of hand-waving over original sin in Jesus scholars is going to change that.

          • Brettongarcia

            What DOES Dr. Joe Hoffman believe about the Historical Jesus, and Mythicism?  It is less obvious than many think.

            Hoffman remember, 1) was in a Jesus Project,that attempted to establish historicity; and remember that his conclusion was basically that historicity could not be established.  Since then? 2)  Hoffmann has so far admitted that he is at present, focusing on mere “plausibility,” and not yet – in his fuller remarks – historicity.  And Paustibility,  he admits is not quite history after all. 

            And?  He 3) often criticizes Mythicists … the same as he criticized Historicists in some ways:  for not being able to positively establish their case. 

            So?  5) Though we often teasingly call him an Historicist, technically – until his next book perhaps? – Hoffman is not quite an Historicist; he is merely an anti-Mythicist it might seem.  At least in public.

            But?  6) In light of his recent flirtation/extensive mentions of the old Bultmann-ian era attachment to the “Christ” of “faith” and the “Church” – and his expressed continued liking for the church, for “stained class windows” as distinguished from Historical Jesus – I think it is reasonable to suggest that Hoffmann is, deep down – and in spite of himself and his occasional pronouncements … really holding on to a lingering attachment to … the a-historical Christ of “faith.”

            7) To be sure? His very latest efforts hint at a new historical Jesus portrait.  But he has notunequivocally said yet, whether that is a) more than merely “plausible,” or b) historical. 

            8) Indeed, given that his latest opinion/book is not out yet?  And given his past remarks?  I think it is not inappropriate to begin to look beyond his themselves rather vague official pronouncements; and consider his deeper attachments.

            Which if I were to guess?  Are indeed to the old Christ of Faith … or in other words, in effect, Myth.  Though he is the traditional, 20th century kind of Mythicist:  a positive one.    He thinks Jesus as we have him today, might be mostly made up by churches and so forth; but he thinks that construction or myth, even if it is fiction, has some kind of truth to it.

            Of course, calling Hoffmann a Mythicist of this sort, might well irritate Hoffmann himself, and occassion adamant denials from him.  But?  Often the truth about ourselves is not what we ourselves think; we need others to point it out for us.

  • Brettongarcia

    1) When looking a members of a particular group, we need to look not only at individuals, but also larger-group social characteristics.  As Sociology tells us, group behavior is relevant.

    2) Yes, I AM running a somewhat probabilistic argument here.  Sociology is all about probability in part.   Though?  I’m also offering specific evidence that what probability suggests, is ALSO confirmed by details of actual (/historical) behavior.

    3) The Criteria are merely the most recent manifestation … of a larger trend of bias that can be found throughout the entire history.

    4) McGrath has yet to issue any specific example of use of the Criteria, in fields other than his own.  Though this specific problem has been discussed a half dozen times in earlier posts.  Indeed, Vridar is quoting a prominent scholar that he himself knows of no such use.

    • Is the claim that I have never provided evidence of the use of the criteria of authenticity, albeit obviousiy not under that name, in other fields of history, a deliberate lie or just an indication that you have ignored what I have written? Perhaps you should start with this post and then work your way back through the discussion:

      In addition to showing the falsity of your claim, it will also illustrate that your misrepresentation is characteristic of mythicists and not something just limited to you.

  • Claude

    Brettongarcia, you do realize that But Keith and Le Donne Are Christians is going to become a classic expression for the reflex to distort reality to align with one’s preconceptions? It’s not just that you speculated that “Le Donne…may have been Jewish” and  Keith…may be agnostic” but that you dismissed McGrath’s assurances that they are Christians as an “Argument from Authority”! Could you really not entertain Occam’s Razor, McGrath is actually acquainted with these guys and was telling the truth about them? I don’t know if it’s willful or unconscious  but your resistance to counter-evidence leads you to veer into the netherworld of conspiracy theory. Come back!

  • Claude

    Sorry to overpost, but I should have said classic response to instead of “expression for.”

    But I was reeling when I wrote it.

    • Brettongarcia

      I think you ARE overreacting.

  • As an atheist, I find this hilarious. 🙂 Not sure why so many atheists are hung up on looking down on others. I guess it’s just human nature – we think we are getting away from this bad behavior like hubris and misogyny when we leave the Church, but it’s still there in us!

  • Claude

    So?  5) Though we often teasingly call him an Historicist, technically – until his next book perhaps? – Hoffman is not quite an Historicist; he is merely an anti-Mythicist it might seem.  At least in public.

    You may have a point. It occurred to me after I wrote the above that although all the indicators suggest Hoffmann inclines to historicity, (from what I recall) the endgame has not been made explicit.

    Much as I enjoy your musings on Hoffmann’s innermost spiritual convictions, they’re not relevant. The Process is an historical, not a theological, project. Otherwise Hoffmann would not have set up the matrix to determine plausibility (which you continue to elide with historicity but I give up):

    >There is no doubt at all that there is a is a mythical Jesus, and we already know where to find him.  My point is simply that the plausible Jesus of the gospels is not that figure. This is where the process begins.

  • Brettongarcia


    I agree, from remarks like Hoffmann’s above, that this is where Hoffmann seems headed for the moment:  toward if not an Historical, than a “Plausible” Jesus. 

    But from his long history, and his frequent if subtle changes of direction?   I’m still thinking that deep down, and in spite of his protestantions, Hoffmann – like many “objective scholars” of religion – still has a lingering attachment to the Christ of Faith.  Or in other words, to positive Mythicism.  As I here characterize it.

  • Claude

    A lingering attachment to the Christ of faith is nostalgia, not mythicism! Many of us, “deep down,” miss the divine Jesus. (I think Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, but I still wouldn’t want to disappoint Him.) It really is possible regardless of sentiment to consider, on the merits, whether Jesus existed.

  • Claude

    Hoffman remember, 1) was in a Jesus Project,that attempted to establish historicity; and remember that his conclusion was basically that historicity could not be established.

    You are more or less correct (not sure if the Project meant to “establish” historicity). However, there is more to the story. I just read Hoffmann’s reflections on the Jesus Project, “Threnody: Rethinking the Thinking behind the Jesus Project.” The Project folded when its funding was cut off, but it’s not clear if remarks by Hoffmann precipitated the withdrawal, or if the doubts he expresses about the Project’s viability are offered in retrospect. At any rate, he complains of a request by a “myther” in the group who requested a separate caucus for those “committed to the thesis that Jesus never existed,” prompting Hoffmann to dryly remark that such a position “does not imply the sort of skepticism that the myth theory itself invites.”

    In the article he certainly sounds pessimistic about reviving a collaborative project like the Jesus Project, but behold: the Process.