The Dangers of Rejecting Critical Inquiry

The Dangers of Rejecting Critical Inquiry September 9, 2013

Tim Widowfield has a post at Vridar which he says has nothing to do with mythicism, and yet somehow the post manages to repeat many of mythicism’s standard canards and talking points. In it he claims that that we know nothing about the Gospels’ provenance (this is not any more true in the case of the Gospels than many other ancient texts that are historically useful), that there is no agreement about their genre (it is not as open a question as some mythicists have claimed), and he even does some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

There seems to be no awareness on the part of mythicists that the challenges to historical criticism they write most favorably about (even if at times they think they do not go far enough) often reflect a profound religious discomfort with the ability of historical critical methods of investigation to conclude that cherished sayings and stories are inauthentic, leading some to a desire to find other methods that leave greater freedom to believe what one chooses.

Discarding critical methods could, if generally accepted, lead to across-the-board agnosticism (and leaps of faith, whether by religious believers or atheists, for those who wish to claim to know that this or that figure did or did not exist). But it will never render the various mythicist scenarios for the origins of Christianity more probable than those which mainstream historical-critical study has come up with.

For an example of what happens when we toss out authentic tools of critical inquiry, or allow distorted forms of them to be twisted into service of ideology, see this article about “How to Spot a Communist Using Literary Criticism” (HT Alin Suciu on Facebook).

While mainstream scholars are exploring the issues and shortcomings of our scholarly tools and methods in order to improve them or, when necessary, replace them, others will gladly point to such work as indicating a fundamental problem in academia rather than a strength, and will then try to force in their own ideology, with none of that self-critical analysis with respect to their own limitations or shortcomings.

Finally, let me note that a book by Raphael Lataster (whom I blogged about previously) related to mythicism has been self-published. There is more information in a guest post on the blog Debunking Christianity. And see too the dialogue that has just started at Strange Notions between Richard Carrier and others on the historicity of Jesus.


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  • Hello James,

    to my mind the strongest Argument against mythicism is the extreme improbability of a belief about Jesus being only a mythological being or spirit getting lost in only ONE or two Generations so that the new Christian saw him as being truly human.

    For such a central aspect of their faith, this is an extraordinary change, which could only lie on willful manipulations from some leaders. Inattention and lack of carefulness would do a terrible explanatory job, so a conspiracy of some kind seems to be required.

    Would you agree with me that this is the weakest Point of mythicism?

    Moreover, I believe that the Bible is not more inspired than many other religious (Chrtistian and non-Christian) books contained outside of the Canon, so I certainly agree we ought to approach them critically.

    But I don’t consider a miracle implausible, provided God had good reason to do it.

    That’s why I reject some aspects of historical critical stemming directly from an anti-supernatural bias.

    I’ve concluded that certain recorded sayings of Jesus were definitely not of him (like many in the Gospel of John), other were probably of him.

    But there are also many situations where I don’t know and am even unable to evaluate the likelihood that Jesus said or did something in a particular situation, and I believe that both liberals and conservatives beg the question when they try to force their particular conclusion.

    As a human being infused with the holy ghost, Jesus could very well have pointed at a cross as the way of his true followers while sensing this would be his fate.

    Actually I doubt one even Needs psychic powers for guessing this in such a situation.

    So I am agnostic about this saying of Jesus, I seems me neither plausible nor implausible.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • Ian

      I’m not a mythicist, I am strongly supportive of the consensus historical position. But your first paragraph begs the question.

      getting lost in only ONE or two Generations

      One or two generations from what? From what later (in the mythicist argument) came to be retroactively fixed as the date of his death?

      I think the timing and lack-of-evidence arguments are strong and weigh against mythicist claims, but they need to be made carefully to avoid assuming the conclusion, I think.

      • I would be interested in seeing a well made argument based on the timing. Even if we accept the traditional dates for the gospels, I’m not sure we can establish that their view of Jesus took hold within a generation or two. I can’t see much of the gospel Jesus in 1 Clement which is supposedly written late in the 1st century.

        On the other hand, as I read the New Testament epistles, it appears that there were several versions of the message that came and went in the first few decades. I’m not sure how we establish that a particular period of time would have been too short for a particular transformation.

        • Ian

          Why would you look for ‘the Gospel Jesus’ anywhere? Taking consensus dating (its a little tendentious to call them ‘traditional’ – the consensus on dating is not the traditional picture), we have the canonical gospels, plus a bunch of non-canonical ones in a sequence that totally overlaps Clement and starts early in Christian writing.

          Clement, as you know, quotes Jesus’s teaching. He is quite clear about the physicality of Jesus, So at minimum, Clement suggests that information about the life of Jesus is available. Ignatius quotes saying material from John.

          So, I guess one could argue that detailed sayings material is early and universally accepted, that then is reused in both ‘forms’ of Christianity, but isn’t it starting to stretch the simple idea that you have a celestial Jesus? Seems so to me.

          As for ‘taking hold’, aren’t you just assuming your conclusion? That Clement / Paul represents some authentic original Christianity and the gospels come later to be adopted? The gospels ‘took hold’: they inspired a literary tradition, copies, editing, and so on.

          My knowledge isn’t broad enough to mount a well made argument on any of this, of course. But it strikes me that the mythicist case has to pack far more independent machinations in a small time frame, with no clear evidence, than the simply historical scenario.

          • Ian,

            I realize the imprecision of calling them “traditional” dates, but I have on occasion referred to them as “consensus” dates only to have someone find fault with that. They are actually the dates that are in the New American Bible that I received upon finishing Catholic high school religious education in 1975, which I suspect are neither overly liberal nor overly conservative. That’s kind of a lot to write every time though.

            1 Clement quotes two sayings of Jesus; one about being merciful in order to obtain mercy and one about the dangers of throwing stumbling blocks in front of believers. Both sayings are similar to ones found in the synoptic gospels, but neither are exact quotes. Clement extensively cites stories from the Old Testament to illustrate his points to the Corinthians, but never cites any stories about the things Jesus did. When it comes to the resurrection, he cites the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes rather than any of the appearance stories found in any of the gospels. I think that at least raises the possibility that the gospels were not yet widely known and accepted at the time he wrote. I don’t claim that it’s conclusive but I think that it’s enough to cast doubts on arguments based on there not being enough time for a human Jesus to replace a spiritual Jesus.

            By “gospel Jesus” I simply meant early 1st century itinerant Galilean preacher rather than bona fide miracle working raised from the dead Jesus. My impression is that Clement didn’t know the former.

          • Ian

            Thanks for clarifying on the timeline and the ‘gospel Jesus’.

            My impression is that Clement didn’t know the former.

            How so, when you’ve just said he quotes Jesus?

            As for the phoenix, it is in a long sequence of metaphors for resurrection, which he lists as giving ‘proof’ of the *future* resurrection. 24:1 It begins with the resurrection of Jesus as the first proof, then says “let us see that resurrection is continually happening” and then cites day and night and seeds, then the phoenix, which is not explicitly associated with Jesus. And concludes with Ch 26, where he applies the metaphors to the resurrection of the faithful, so the claim that this indicates Jesus’s resurrection is mythical seems a very strained reading of the text.

            It also isn’t clear what he understands about the Phoenix as myth. His use of it in Ch 25-26 suggest an embarrassingly literal interpretation to me, given that he seems to be trying to use resurrection-like-things in the natural world to make his argument that resurrection is ubiquitous. Tertullian seems to interpret Clement that way also.

            Clement’s Jesus reads to me less celestial than Paul’s. He is careful to distinguish the acts of Jesus from God’s, for example. And describes Jesus interacting with the apostles in ways that are very consistent with the ‘gospel’ Jesus. He describes God as choosing / calling Jesus, and through Jesus, the faithful.

          • I agree that Clement’s Jesus is less celestial than Paul’s, but nonetheless, he only quotes Jesus on a couple vague pieties and he gives no sense of Jesus as a parable preacher or wonder worker. I don’t recall Clement giving much sense of Jesus’s interaction with his earthly companions, but it has been awhile since I read him and I don’t think I had that in mind when I did.

            It has always struck me that Clement relies so heavily on the Old Testament for illustrations when writing to the Corinthians who were according to Paul mostly pagan converts. Had their been an accepted tradition of stories about Jesus’s earthly ministry at the time, I would expect that to be more in evidence. That seems to me to leave room for the process of historicization to have taken many decades. Regardless of the dates one assigns to the gospels, I think that it is hard to establish that they were widely circulated or accepted until some point in the second century. .Clement clearly knows many of Paul’s letters, but far from clear that he knows the gospels.

            All I am trying to rebut here is the idea of “the extreme improbability of a belief about Jesus being only a mythological being or spirit getting lost in only ONE or two Generations so that the new Christian saw him as being truly human.” If such a process took place, I think there may be room for it to have taken the better part of century.

          • Ian

            Got ya, so it is purely a timing issue for you then.

            What of Ignatius, then? Do you think his quotes from John are from a Johannine sayings tradition, rather than the gospel?

            [BTW: I confess, I feel I’m working beyond my pay grade in this conversation, I’ve been trying to self edit, but I’d welcome any corrections and pointers to other things to read on this.]

          • I don’t know if I would call it “purely a timing issue,” however, I do wonder when the gospels became generally circulated and accepted. When it comes to Ignatius’s sources, you are getting way beyond my pay grade as well.

          • If I can throw my two cents worth in on the timing issue:

            In the article James links to above, Carrier identifies Peter as the likely “founder” of Christianity. It strikes me that if he were correct, this would create an even bigger problem than the one Lothar suggests above.

            If Peter had founded Christianity, then instead of having a gap of 40 of years from the death of the founder to the first Christian narrative sources, you have a gap of maybe as little as 5-10 years (Peter seems to be alive when Paul is writing and such evidence as we have from church traditions places his death in the mid-60s).

            So according to this mythicist model Mark, deliberately or not, relegates his own movement’s founder (who would presumably have been seen as a hugely significant prophetic figure in his own right) to the supporting cast of a fictional story just a few years after this founder’s death. Not only this, but no other Christian seems to have objected to, refuted, or even bothered to mention, this fairly fundamental error. Did nobody think “hang on, won’t the next two thousand years of Christians get the wrong end of the stick here?”

            I’m not saying that such a scenario is completely impossible, it just seems to me that mythicist theories need a lot of unevidenced historical epicycles to make them work.

          • I think that you could have kept those two cents for yourself Paul. Our sources indicate that there were a number of competing factions in the early church, some of which were in conflict with Peter. The fact that Carrier identifies Peter as the likely founder doesn’t mean for a minute that there wouldn’t have been plenty of people during Peter’s day who might have an interest in inventing a story that diminished his influence or importance in favor of someone else.

          • It’s one thing to say that something is possible, another to show that this the most plausible reading of the evidence.

            Similarly, most people agree that there were a number of factions within early Christianity.This is not the same as making a solid case that early Christian groups existed who did and thought the things that your theory requires. The existence of factions doesn’t itself make mythicism more plausible than the mainstream theory, or for that matter any number of fringe theories on Christian origins. For example Simcha’s married Jesus/Talpiot Tomb theory needs such factions to downplay the role of Jesus family and suppress the evidence that Jesus had a wife, a son and family tomb. What makes your appeal to the existence of factions a better interpretation of the evidence than Simcha’s?

            Your point about people diminishing Peter’s importance is problematic for me. In some instances the founder of a movement is ultimately outshone by some other figure (as is arguably the case with JTB and Jesus, the Bab and Bahaullah, or even Jesus and Paul) but these are all human beings, not retrospectively historicised celestial entities, and in these instances there is some evidence for and explanation of this development.

            If Mark had belonged to (say) a Pauline faction, why not just tell a story in which Paul has the original vision of the Celestial Jesus and paint Peter as the Johnny come lately? We’ have to believe that Mark wants to downplay Peter’s importance but does such a cack-handed job of it that he casts Peter as the the first disciple to be called and totally forgets to push the claims of the rival figure he wished to promote!

            Christians seem to generally have been pretty happy to take their co-religionists to task for their perceived errors, so if historicists ultimately came to dominate Christianity’s original mythicist followers, why don’t we find mention of a “Petrine heresy” in e.g. Iranaeus’ Against Heresies, or some early mythicist narrative of the early church? It seems to me that to accept Carrier’s mythicist view, I have to accept that that an enormous and inherently divisive shift occurred in early Christianity *without* leaving any obvious historical trace.

            Sorry, don’t buy it.

          • The existence of factions doesn’t itself make mythicism more plausible than the mainstream theory, or for that matter any number of fringe theories on Christian origins.

            Of course it doesn’t Paul, and nothing that I said (or that any one else has said AFAIK) suggests anything of the kind. However, the existence of factions more than adequately answers your objection that no one would have wanted to invent a story that reduced the importance of Peter.

            What makes your appeal to the existence of factions a better interpretation of the evidence than Simcha’s?

            I am not familiar with Simcha’s theory and I haven’t the foggiest notion of why you think it relevant to any point under discussion.

            We’ have to believe that Mark wants to downplay Peter’s importance but does such a cack-handed job of it that he casts Peter as the the first disciple to be called and totally forgets to push the claims of the rival figure he wished to promote!

            I quite agree that it is far from clear that Mark is downplaying Peter’s importance at all, but this just further undercuts your argument. The Risen Christ would always have had primary importance in the movement’s teachings (and hence would always have outshone anyone to whom he revealed himself) so a story that made him the first disciple of a historicized earthly Jesus wouldn’t necessarily have reduced Peter’s status at all.

          • However, the existence of factions more than adequately answers your objection that no one would have wanted to invent a story that reduced the importance of Peter.

            I didn’t say that “no-one would have wanted to invent a story that downplayed the importance of Peter”, that’s a Carr-esque straw man: I actually give examples of where the downgrading of a movement’s founder has arguably happened! My problem is – where is the evidence that this took place in early Christianity? If such a big shift had happened, why don’t we hear about dissenting voices?

            (EDIT – for example, I think you can trace Christianity’s shift away it’s Jewish origins to something more “Greek” quite nicely with the available evidence, and there are good explanations for how, when and why this happened. I see nothing comparable for the kind of shift you’re talking about here)

            I quite agree that it is far from clear that Mark is downplaying Peter’s importance at all, but this just further undercuts your argument.

            Er… the same, right back at you. I’m completely lost as to what evidence you have that Peter founded the Christian movement, and then subsequently had his status downplayed. Is Mark’s gospel part of this movement that downplayed Peter’s role or not? If not, what Christian (or other) writings support the view that Peter founded “Christianity”, and subsequently had his role downgraded, particularly if casting Peter as earthly follower instead of recipient of divine revelation is not downgrading at all?

            The Risen Christ would always have had primary importance in the movement’s teachings (and hence would have always outshone to whom he revealed himself

            Really? Did Jibril outshine Muhammad or Moroni outshine Joseph Smith? And why are numerous early Christian writings relatively uninterested in the risen Christ? Synoptics, James, Didache…

            This also doesn’t explain why Peter gets incorporated into a historicized ministry but Paul doesn’t. This is more efficiently explained if the historical Jesus had a group of earthly followers that Peter was a part of, but Paul wasn’t.

            I am not familiar with Simcha’s theory and I haven’t the foggiest notion of why you think it relevant to any point under discussion.

            Leaving aside my amusement that somebody who is sympathetic to one dodgy theory about Christian origins is so unfamiliar with an equally dodgy one, I think the second part of your sentence is adequately explained by the first!

          • You wrote that you had a problem with Carrier’s theory that Peter was the founder because it meant that Mark would have relegated the founder to the supporting cast. That was the argument that I responded to by citing the factions. If you don’t think there’s evidence for Peter being the founder, I’m not going to argue with you as I have questions there myself. I was merely addressing your objection to the idea that Mark might have downplayed Peter’s status. You now apparently don’t think that Mark actually downplayed Peter and you are pretending that it was actually a position that I took. You are doing the kitchen sink thing again Paul and I would rather not play.

          • [Shrugs] I have no idea at all what you mean by “the kitchen sink thing”.

            My original comment above was specifically about Carrier’s theory, which is why I talked about Carrier’s views rather than yours. If you’re not interested in defending views you don’t hold (and there’s no reason why you should be), then it’s probably best if our conversation ends here.

          • Paul,

            “Everything but the kitchen sink” is an idiom meaning “everything a person could imagine.” Perhaps it is unknown on your side of the Atlantic.

            If I respond to a specific objection you have offered to a specific position that Carrier has taken, that does not obligate me to defend every position that Carrier has ever taken or every implication you see in every position he has taken. It certainly doesn’t obligate me to defend any other theory just because you view it as being as far out on the fringe as Carrier’s, nor do I think your derision is warranted simply because I am not familiar with every theory which you deem to be as far out on the fringe as arguments I have made.

            I am interested in discussing views which I don’t hold with people who are interested in a civil exchange of views, but your schtick is getting tiresome.

          • Ok then, thanks for the chat.

          • It seems to me that you used to do better than this Paul.

          • I might say much the same about you Vinny.

            It doesn’t particularly bother me that you make unconstructive comments like “you could have kept those two cents for yourself” and “I haven’t the foggiest why you think it relevant”. However when you then accuse me of being derisive or not interested in civil discussion… I’m afraid you increasingly resemble one of those tiresome mythicist semi-trolls who are happy to make snide comments about others, but bleat “ad hominem” the moment anyone responds in kind.

          • Paul,

            I will concede that I was just being snippy with the “two cents” comment, but I really was hoping that you could explain the relevance of the Talpiot Tomb question. My puzzlement concerning that point was genuine. Rather than explain it, however, you asked another half dozen questions that were not directed towards any position I had taken. Where I think you are doing worse is in the quantity of rabbit trails It seems to me that you used to actually respond to my points.

          • Pofarmer

            Well, since your really don’t have anything written by Peter, my understanding is that both Gospels are forgeries, then you really don’t have a whole lot to go on. By what Paul says, Peter was preaching mainly to the Jews, and teaching that one mainly had to keep the Jewish laws if one converted, correct? While Paul pretty much through all of that under the bus. It’s pretty easy to see how Pauls view could come to be the dominant one. So, in that manner, I think Peter was downgraded, in that Pauls views became predominant, even if Peter was used to claim the ascendency of the Catholic Church.

          • Yep, I agree that certain Pauline views (though not all of them) become predominant in Christianity.

            What do you mean by “both gospels are forgeries?”

          • Pofarmer

            I was thinking, possibly incorrectly, that both 1Peter and 2Peter were considered non-authentic, so we really don’t have any writings attributable to Peter at all. Thinking on it, perhaps it was just 2Peter.

          • 1 and 2 Peter are letters, not gospels. But yes, not many people think that Peter actually wrote them.

    • Pofarmer

      Here’s the deal, though. We have a very recent evidence of this, not 20 miles from me, not a couple of months ago. It was the “Missouri Angel” where a gal got head on’d on a Sunday morning and there was a rescue crew there. They were trying to cut through the car from the bottom, it was a Mercedes, so it was tough going, and they were dulling their tools. A priest showed up, prayed with the gal and the crew, and left. The crew flipped the car over, a new truck arrived with fresh tools from another district, and they cut the gal out from the top where it’s much easier going. All of a sudden, you have all these Angel stories. The stories got more fabulous in the print media, until the cars were blocked back 2 miles from the accident site the workers heard a voice saying “Your tools will now work.”. The whole thing was kind of getting out of hand. Finally, after a week or 10 days, a Priest came forward and said, indeed, he had come up on the accident, driven as close as he could(a few hundred feet) a trooper let him up the accident and he did his bit and then left. The rescue crew was busy and simply didn’t notice him leave. Indeed, the tools did work, but they were new tools being used on a different part of the car. If this hadn’t gotten tamped down, it would have been a full blown miracle story very quickly, in the information age, in the U.S., in under a month. I don’t think it’s too much to think that a miracle story could have gotten out of hand in a couple of GENERATIONS in the Ancient world, with no real way to check anything that passes for facts.

      • arcseconds

        Lothar is talking about the mythicist argument that Jesus was never a real person, but always a mythological spirit-being, like, oh, I don’t know, Apollo, or Gabriel.

        Not the hypothesis, accepted by historicists, that Jesus was a real person but some of the stories about him got a little exaggerated (or outright made-up) over time.

        • Pofarmer

          Yes, I know, but I was just pointing out how easy it is for a myth to be made, and very quickly. In ancient times it would have been much easier, because fact checking was much harder. So, it’s not really hard to see how a mythical Jesus could have got started. At this point, I’m not even sure it matters if he was real or not, because the differing Birth and Death and Ressurection accounts(plus some common sense) point to them being mythologized anyway, and that is the real base for the theology, well, that and the Fall and Adam and Eve, which is clearly mythical. I will try to follow Dr. Carrier on Strange Notions.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, but the example you’ve chosen was based on an actual occurrence, so it’s analogous to the historicist case, not the mythicist one.

            What do you suppose the chances of the myth you’re talking about having come about without an actual car accident behind it would be?

          • Pofarmer

            Yes, that’s a fair point. But, what I was more talking about was the idea that something like, say, the Virgin Birth Narrative wouldn’t get created in the period of a couple or 80 years. But, if you want to talk about pure mythology. There were certainly plenty of God myths going around at the time of Paul. What is to say that Paul didn’t simply make the thing up out of whole cloth following getting struck by lightning on the road to Damascus? Or that the Jesus story is a compilation of a couple of different figures? We know that there are certainly problems with some key parts of the synoptics, such as the sermon on the mount being based on the Greek Septuagint.

          • arcseconds

            Ah, but no-one else was talking about mythic accretions and additions to the story of historic individual. Everyone else was talking about whether or not the entire story is true. As far as I know, all the regulars here agree that much of the stuff that happens in the Gospels is myth. The question is whether the entire story is myth, or whether there was some actual person doing some actual things behind it.

            Just trying to bring you up to speed here 🙂

            As for ‘who is to say’, well, there’s a long story there, but suffice it to say that:

            (a) no-one here thinks the evidence is absolutely incontrovertible. The historicist just think a historical person is the most likely explanation for the artifacts we have.

            (b) Historicism is the mainstream view amongst scholars who study the matter, including James McGrath. There are a very tiny number of bona fide scholars who think otherwise. Carrier is one of them.

          • Pofarmer

            Well, I think then that we now know where we are! Would you say then, that for most of the regulars here, it wouldn’t be particularly important then, one way or the other? I think one thing for me, that does indicate a good possibility of myth, is the lack of any real contemporary evidence outside the gospel accounts. No archaeology, no graphiti, no writings or letters. Nothing really much written by anyone who wasn’t a supposed disciple. There is definately a disconcerting lack of supporting evidence.

          • arcseconds

            nononono, people have too much personally at stake in the argument for it to not be important!

            McGrath is a New Testament scholar, so professionally it’s an important topic for him, and some of his colleagues comment here sometimes. Carrier is making a career out of being a professional mythicist, so it’s professionally an important topic for him, too. Neil Godfrey, who (co?) runs Vridar, the site the original post cites, has been running that website for years, where mythicism is the central topic.

            Also, I think everyone wants everyone else to think rationally about the topic, and to accept the most rational account.

            So there’s that, too.

            Naturally, people have their differences as to what that account actually is…

          • Pofarmer

            Well, fair enough. From a practical perspective though, it just seems like once you’ve given up on the divine bits. the rest is really pretty unknowable given the paucity of anything resembling physical evidence.

          • Sorry, are you under the impression that Jesus was an emperor or some other such individual? We tend to lack physical evidence for people of the sort the historical Jesus was – compare Socrates, Hillel, John the Baptist, and so on.

          • Pofarmer

            It’s just interesting to me. I mean, honestly, once you’ve determined the birth and resurrection narratives are myth, the miracles are myth, then what does the historicity of the individual really matter? You have and individual who was mythicized and placed on a pedestal and worshiped, or you have the story of an individual who was divine and came down from heaven and was sacrificed. I’m not sure that once you falsify the miraculous parts, that the mundane parts hold much truck. I’m sorry if this is in any way offensive.

          • It isn’t offensive, it just doesn’t make sense from the perspective of historical study. Tales of the miraculous about a figure are one of the first things historians set aside, since historical study deals in probabilities, and such claims are inherently improbable. Mythologizing the birth and death of important figures is par for the course in this time and place.

            Does getting history right really seem to you not to matter? Especially when the same denialist tactics that are applied to Jesus by mythicists are used by Holocaust deniers and young-earth creationists and the like? William Clifford’s famous essay “The Ethics of Belief” seems apt here: when we allow ourselves to be gullible with respect to relatively insignificant or inconsequential matters, we are training our minds in a way that is liable to lead us to be gullible when the consequences are more serious.

          • Pofarmer

            Thank you for the reply. I suppose I was thinking more along the lines of a theological perspective, than from a strictly historical perspective.

          • Ian

            what does the historicity of the individual really matter

            This, I think, is a crucial point, and one that frustrates me no end about the kind of popular mythicism around atheist forums.

            I’ve said elsewhere that — for all the reasons Jesus is significant culturally and theologically — the scholarly consensus is that Jesus is a myth.

            The false dichotomy between the mythicist Jesus and the fundamentalist Jesus is rife in both atheist and evangelical circles, but it is a misunderstanding of scholarship, in the extreme.

            Historians of early Christianity care all kinds of things that have no theological currency at all. The question about Jesus is not so much ‘did Jesus exist’, but ‘what caused the historical evidence we have’. The question of Jesus’s existence, I don’t think, matters to most historians on its own terms. What does matter is the idea that a lot of careful detailed research in a range of scholarly sub-disciplines, can be thrown aside without a better replacement, in the service of a question that is transparently ideological. I think in many cases, and I include myself here, it is the fact that the existence of Jesus matters *so little* that is so frustrating with a lot of mythicism. In my case that frustration is even more acute, for the same reason, when dealing with anti-scholarly positions from the conservative side.

          • arcseconds

            Don’t you think it might be worth at least reading the arguments of those who study this stuff professionally, before making up your mind?

          • Pofarmer

            I’m not sure my minds made up. I’ve read a lot of Carrier, Ehrman, Doherty, Price, Spong, et al. So, I’m probably more well read on the recent stuff that is more in the mythicist camp. I lived the other camp most of my life. I must say the discussion here is interesting, and I am going to bow out of it and lurk some.

          • arcseconds

            Ah, well, you probably know more about it than me, then 🙂

            Although it’s probably worth noting Ehrman’s a historicist.

        • Pofarmer

          Oh, and keep in mind that the apocrypha generally DOES have stories in it that are much more fantabulous than what was accepted as Cannon.

  • For all of the clucking about “wrong tools” and bleating about the form
    critical “error” of examining pericopae in too much isolated detail (as
    if they invented it), what Rodríguez company really got wrong
    is this: Our problem lies not with our tool set, our approach, or our
    methodology; it lies rather with the nature of the evidence itself.

    -Did you miss this sentence? Also, your link in “this is not any more true in the case of the Gospels than many other ancient texts that are historically useful” does not really discuss the Gospels and the Witmer article is filled with Points Refuted A Thousand Times.

    • What “points refuted a thousand times” do you have in mind?

      • The Tacitus passage is strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

        The Baptism was oh-so-embarrasing, so there’s a very low probability it could have been made up.

        Actually, all the “who woulddamadeitups” in the Witmer article.

        • Ian

          Has the inconvenience of the baptism been refuted? I’ve heard it criticised, but it has always sounded like special pleading to me. The authenticity of the baptism is, from what I’ve read, a pretty good argument. Happy to be pointed at things I haven’t read though.

          • The Baptism does look inconvenient for John, Luke, and Matthew, but not for Mark, which originates the tradition found in the other three gospels.

          • But the question is why, if it was simply a Markan invention, the other Gospel authors felt they needed to address it but rewrite it, rather than simply leaving it out. The historical deduction involved is that this was something widely known, and not the invention of a single author which one could simply drop or deny.

          • Possible answers:

            a. The writers were unimaginative.
            b. The Gospel of Mark wasn’t going away.
            c. The Baptism is a pivotal moment in the Markan story. Mark’s prophecy evidence of JtB being Elijah also looked useful; thus, JtB was kept in all the gospels.

          • There are probably an infinite number of possibilities as to what might, in theory, be the case. What makes you view those proposals as more probable than the one that persuades most historians and scholars?

          • I only see about a 20% probability of Mark inventing the Baptism. This is due to the possibility of Q existing. I see about a 40% probability of the Baptism actually occurring. I see the probability of Jesus existing as being around 50%. The case for Jesus not existing is too long to discuss here. Needless to say, if Jesus didn’t exist, neither was he baptized. You might be right that I have focused too much on options assuming non-historicity.

          • Steven Carr

            But the question is why, if it was simply a Markan invention, the other Gospel authors felt they needed to address it but rewrite it, rather than simply leaving it out.

            What I think McGrath is trying to say here is that the author of John simply left it out.

          • Ian

            The baptism absolutely looks inconvenient for Mark, surely, unless you read Mark as not suggesting that John was talking about preparing the way for Jesus.

            The inconvenience lies in the need to assign to John a level of conscious acknowledgement of Jesus’s superiority.

            As I understand it.

            [Edit: My use of ‘conscious’ above isn’t helpful, and I backtrack on it below, hopefully without undoing my point!]

          • JtB in Mark does not, so far as I understand, consciously acknowledge Jesus’s superiority, but he does unconsciously acknowledge it. I’ve just realized this fits well with the whole “messianic secret” idea.

          • Ian

            But the conscious action of John isn’t the issue surely? It is Mark reinterpreting something that has one valence (Jesus is John’s disciple) in service of his theology.

          • I don’t quite understand your question. Can you elaborate?

          • Ian

            I don’t see why Mark’s authorial intent on what John knew and when is particularly significant, that’s all. Mark is pretty clear that the baptism should not be interpreted in the obvious way, but instead should be interpreted as evidence of Jesus’s superiority. It is that inversion, I thought, which is the substance of the inconvenience argument.

            The later gospels seem not to think Mark made the inversion point strongly enough, and egg the pudding a little more, but it is a difference of degree, not quality, as far as I can tell.

          • “Mark is pretty clear that the baptism should not be interpreted in the
            obvious way, but instead should be interpreted as evidence of Jesus’s
            -To the reader of Mark’s gospel, yes.
            “It is that inversion, I thought, which is the substance of the inconvenience argument.”
            -How? I don’t quite get it.

          • Ian

            What were you referring to as the inconvenience argument for the authenticity of Jesus’s baptism by John in the other 3 gospels then? Let’s see if we’re talking about the same thing.

  • Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear
    testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition,
    our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when
    writing certain things notwithstanding.

    -I don’t understand the meaning of the middle section of this sentence, thus, I cannot understand the whole sentence.

    • Oops, I reworded it for the sake of clarity, ironically, and didn’t change it enough. My point was that historians prefer an ancient text, even though it means we cannot see the expression on the author’s face, to a modern individual telling what purports to be an ancient story.