Beyond Jesus-Agnosticism

Beyond Jesus-Agnosticism July 20, 2013

Rick Sumner poses some interesting questions on his blog The Dilettante Exegete – during some of which he has an imaginary gun to his head!

One that I think is particularly interesting is the question of what one ought to call the stance that there probably was a historical Jesus – the brother of the James whom Paul mentions meeting in his letter to the Galatians – but about whom we can say next to nothing, since the Gospel material cannot be used to reconstruct his life with a sufficient degree of probability.

“Jesus agnostic” doesn’t fit – it better describes the stance of sitting on the fence about whether there was a historical Jesus or not. And Sumner’s proposal of “functional mythicist” seems to me to be problematic, since it suggests that the stance is closer to that of the fringe internet viewpoint, when in fact it is a perfectly respectable stance held by mainstream historians and scholars.

So what are the alternatives? I’d suggest that either “Bultmannian” or “Jesus minimalist” might work. But what do others think?

On a related note, there is a recent article by Reza Aslan about what we can know about the historical Jesus.

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  • Kubricks_Rube

    Baseliners? Inconclusivists? Reasonable-doubters?

    • I don’t think that the latter in particular really distinguishes this stance clearly. Do you?

      • Kubricks_Rube

        Probably not. The last one was more word play (comparing them to unreasonable doubters) than a legit recommendation. I like “minimalist” the best, I think.

  • I would call Rick a “historical Jesus minimalist.” I like the term “functional mythicist” since I think that the Jesus of Nazareth found in the New Testament is a myth for all practical purposes, but I know from experience that many people will never get the distinction no matter how much time he spends explaining it. I consider myself a “historical Jesus agnostic” because I am not persuaded that the evidence is sufficient to establish that even a historically minimal Jesus existed (although I am open to that possibility). It is a much less elegant term than “functional mythicist,” but much less time consuming to explain. I suspect that “Bultmannian” would require a lot of explanation for a lot of people as well.

  • Ian

    I would definitely go with Jesus minimalist. I think that expresses my view of Jesus well. Functional mythicist doesn’t help, because the scholarly consensus is that Jesus Christ is mythological – so that doesn’t help to delineate this particular view, and as you say, seems to suggest affiliation with the Christ Myth hypothesis, which is a positive claim, and one that is altogether different.

    It complicates the issue that various ‘mythicists’ online (Neil Godfrey, for example) self-identify as not being proponents of the Christ myth idea, but simply agnostic about the conclusions that can be reached given the quality of the evidence. So they, I’d suggest, probably warrant a more agnostic label.

    Minimalist has pedigree in the field and accurately describes the issue: the belief that a minimal (but non-zero) amount of NT material about Jesus has any historicity.

    • I consider myself an agnostic rather than an atheist because I can still see the potential explanatory power of the God hypothesis even though I don’t think that there is sufficient evidence to establish God’s existence. Similarly, I think that the historical Jesus hypothesis has some explanatory power even though I don’t think it is sufficient to tip the scales.

      I think that many who say they are agnostic about a historical Jesus, such as Neil Godfrey, are of the opinion that the historical Jesus hypothesis should be rejected as having no explanatory power even if they cannot prove the non-existence of a minimal Jesus. They may not go as far as Doherty in positively affirming mythicism, but they are farther along the spectrum than someone like myself or Tom Verenna.

      Maybe we need another category between agnosticism and mythicism, e.g., “Jesus ahistoricism.”

  • Keyra

    That’s why I don’t take Jesus mythicists seriously

    • That seems rather poor grounds. Certainly the Quest has produced significantly more mutually exclusive variants. And who can forget all the discussion of whether Crossan’s Jesus should be called a cynic?

  • Thanks for the hat tip!

    Just to clarify, without a gun to my head I’d identify as agnostic, because I don’t think my preference for a reading of Galatians should count as evidence, so while I may feel a minimalist stance is most warranted, I don’t think that warrant is sufficient to make an historical truth claim.

    And heavens , anything but Bultmannian!

  • Nick Barr

    On the article by reza Aslan: I wonder why he is happy to accept the two ‘bandits’ and the plaque saying ‘king of the jews’ as historical, but not other parts of the gospels that might contradict his theories, like when Jesus (alledgedly) said his kingdom was not of this world, or when he instructed his followers to pay their taxes.

    It seems like there might be special pleading involved.

  • spin

    I don’t find that “mythicist” is itself the contrary to “historicist“. But then I feel both terms are used in different ways by different people.

    A mythicist is seen by some to mean a person who believes that Jesus didn’t exist, based on a loose notion of myth. Others see a mythicist as someone who believes Jesus is the product of mythopoeia (the creation of myth).

    A historicist is seen by some as someone who believes that Jesus existed. (The vast majority of christians believe he existed, though most have not contemplated any historical data.) Others see it as a person who through historical methodology finds evidence for the existence of Jesus.

    I’ve actually just outlined four different views, but the non-existence side of things gets slightly more complicated by the fact that there are non-mythical explanations for the non-existence of Jesus: those who think that Jesus is a fictional creation, ie purposefully made up, such as the conspiracy theorists who claim that the Romans wanted to manipulate the empire’s population (through theological ideas from Judea!?).

    “Mythicist” isn’t a functional opposite of “historicist”, though they are on opposite sides of the fence. The use of “mythicist” in the general sense is sloppy and confusing, as is the general use of “historicist”–and I’ve found people who project the notion of belief in a historical Jesus back to ancient times, as though ancient people generally had some notion of historiography.

    With god it’s easy: either you believe he exists (theist) or you believe he doesn’t (atheist) and you forget about fools like me (agnostic). Nobody has to take on the notion of the historicity of god, but with Jesus there is the potential of his having interacted in the world in a way that can be dealt with through historical research and that complicates the possibilities. One is not dealing with the simple notion of existence, but of historically discernibleness on one side and theories of why Jesus didn’t exist on the other.

    I have no terminological resolution to the complexities here. I just wanted to point them out. Most people refuse to change their usage of terms for the more precise, thus ensuring a certain amount of non-comprehension in discussion.

    I don’t however find Rick’s suggestion “functional mythicist” illuminating. It’s less accurate than his less sexy “Jesus agnostic”. I go for the hope of being more communicative. (I have to call myself a Jesus agnostic.)

    Yo Rick!

    • spin

      On a quick reread of Rick’s blog, I’d recommend that we scrub my last paragraph and go with Ian’s “Jesus minimalist” suggestion, with Vinny’s rider, “HJ minimalist”.

    • Guest

      What about people who think many of the stories are myths, reworkings of other stories and pious legends, but that there’s a core of nutty historical goodness somewhere in the middle? If God really acted as he did in the bible, then his actions would be part of history. If the Red Sea parted for the Isrealites and then drowned Pharoah’s army, it ought to show up in Eygptian records as well, and the fact that it doesn’t is suggestive of the histority of the story. I think the only way God can not be a part of history is if he never interferes in human affairs at all. If you believe in an interventionist god, then looking for his acts in historical records makes sense. There are some people that think god set the world in motion and then just left it alone. Personally I don’t see the point of a god like that. It’s certainly not one you can pray to or have a relationship with.

      • spin

        I was specifically dealing with terms for views concerning Jesus, but you have brought up a term that I didn’t specifically look at. “History” has various meanings and, when you talk of god being a part of history, you seem to be using “history” to refer to the collection of past events. I try to restrict my use of the word to deal with that study which attempts to understand what happened in the past, the job of historians and the application of “historical methodology”. That means, for me, the historical Jesus is that Jesus that can be extracted from the data from the past by using historical methods.

        As to history dealing with god, he, she or it doesn’t stick around and leave the sort of data that historians can work with. So god may be interventionist, but history doesn’t have suitable means to investigate god. God thus far remains outside of what we have reclaimed from the past. He, she or it isn’t historical, in the sense that no data from the past has been able to give us any direct clues to the existence of god.