Bible and Interpretation Article on Mythicism

Bible and Interpretation Article on Mythicism March 25, 2014

Given the interest generated by Maurice Casey’s book and Richard Carrier’s blogging about it, I thought I should turn my 2013 SBL conference paper on mythicism and academic freedom into an article quickly. And so I am pleased to say that “Mythicism and the Mainstream: The Rhetoric and Realities of Academic Freedom” is now available on the Bible and Interpretation website. It focuses mainly on the broader question and on the specific example of Thomas Brodie’s work.

In other news, Dustin Martyr has the latest installment from his interview with me.

"Although Copernicanism is meant to be an impregnable concept, its folly is apparent. From the ..."

Ancient Hebrew Cosmology
"My apologies. I had assumed that the game’s focus on creation would make clear that ..."

More Genesis Games, Plus Apocrypha
"Re your reference to: “ things that are not explicitly mentioned in Genesis (such as ..."

More Genesis Games, Plus Apocrypha
"That sounds like an interesting volume. I like that Good Omens is being suggested as ..."

Transgressive Women in Speculative Fiction #CFP

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David Hillman

    I see you SBL article ends with a reference to Robert Price which is unfortunately worded. You refer to Price being a climate change denialist and therefore a believer in conspiracy theories. I am sure you know that Price’s political views (some kind of Republican individualism) and attitude to climate change are very atypical of those you call mythicists. I shall be charitable and assume you finish by saying THEY believe in conspiracy theories is because you think it is the grammatically correct pronoun to go with one. Else I would think it was just a strategy (like Casey falsely calling all “mythicists” ex-fundamentalists) designed to smear rather than argue. Of course those who seek the origins and development of Christianities in social needs and its stories’ roots in literary traditions would be the last to think its genesis was in a conspiracy, and this whether any man called Jesus was important in its inception, a question perhaps as unanswerable as whether there existed an original King Arthur.

    • $41348855

      The conspiracy in question is the alleged conspiracy of scholars. Here is what Richard Carrier has to say about it:

      “This makes Ehrman’s observation that no mythicist presently has
      a professorship (a distinction he did not make, but I am) a
      self-fulfilling prophecy: since Ehrman has all but explicitly stated
      that professors in “accredited institutions” do not have academic
      freedom, that indeed Ehrman opposes that freedom, verbally and
      institutionally, and endorses persecuting, verbally and institutionally,
      any who dare exercise it”

      The mythicists appear to be the ones doing the smearing.

      • David Hillman

        Oh dear, I did not know Ehrman had said that. It is shocking.

        • $41348855

          Presumably, you mean that you are shocked by what Ehrman actually said. Perhaps you should distinguish that from the claim that Ehrman opposes academic freedom and endorses the persecution of any who exercise it.

      • Neko

        I see: Bart Ehrman opposes scholarly inquiry and freedom of speech and “endorses” persecution!

        It’s BS like this that makes it hard to take Carrier seriously.

        • $41348855

          They’re a mean bunch, these historicists. It’s just as well that we have real heroes like Carrier taking them on 🙂

          • Ignorantia Nescia

            Imagine how many mythicists the historicist mob would have lynched if he weren’t there!

          • MattB

            Oh dear…boo hoo! Carrier feels persecuted because the entire community of scholars and historians disagree with him. And so that somehow is considered “persecution” even though no one is making fun of him, threatening to kill him,etc….

          • $41348855

            Hello, Matt. There is an interesting debate going on at the Bible and Interpretation site. Neil Godfrey has just said that the problems of mythicism are “not insurmountable”. That’s interesting, isn’t it? First the myth theory is going to sweep away the consensus; now we hear that its problems are not insurmountable!

          • MattB

            Hey, stuart! I will definitely have to check the debate out. “Mythicism isn’t insurmountable” LOL and neither is young-earth Creationism.

          • $41348855

            Thanks for weighing in, Matt. “Mythicists are digging holes they can’t fill.” What a perfect way of putting it!

          • MattB

            No problem bud:) I liked your response as well. “It doesn’t have to be an insurmountable problem; it just has to be a problem and mythicism loses it’s credibility.”

      • And here’s the line in which Ehrman supposedly endorses the persecution of mythicists:

        These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

        Since Carrier is a self-proclaimed atheist figurehead and all-around super genius, I guess he expects us to think that Ehrman isn’t just saying that candidates wouldn’t land teaching jobs by spouting weird rhetoric.

        But hey, if they’ve got Carrier’s people skills, who knows?

        • redpill99

          “get a teaching job in an established department of religion”
          I would add “history”

          Mythers claim that the fact many historians of early Christianity are or were Christian biases their research

    • Ignorantia Nescia

      The selection of unattested interpolations that are needed for most strands of Mythicism to work are of themselves enough to qualify as a “conspiracy”. And there were no conspiracy there, Mythicists at least feel the need to imagine scholarly conspiracies.

      • David Hillman

        There are conspiracy theories about the origins of Christianity.(I find conspiracy theories most entertaining, one of my favourites being that conspiracy theories are started by the C.I.A to obscure real conspiracies). The best reads as conspiracy theories for the origins of Christianity are Schonfield’s “Passover Plot” and Graves’ “King Jesus” (both by historicists not mythicists by the way).
        I do not think so-called mythicism generally depends on interpolation conspiracies. Many interpolations are agreed to be such by almost all scholars, those in contention do not have historicists all on one side of the argument and mythicists on the other. The big argument is over the extent of the interpolations in Josephus – I do not think anyone sensible denies the Jesus and James quotes are at least partly interpolated do they? The most scholarly argument that they were completely an interpolation (by Richard Carrier) does not put this down to a conspiracy but to accidental incorporation of marginal notes. I have not read this yet – I think it is in his “Hitler, Homer, Bible, Christ” just out – has anyone else and were they convinced?

        • The suggestion that the James reference is an interpolation is not widely held, and seems to run afoul of the evidence from Origen.

          • David Hillman

            Yes doesn’t Origen blame Josephus for saying the destruction of the Temple followed the murder of James when, says Origen, he should have said it was God’s judgement for the Killing of Jesus? He does not, does he, quote the heavily Christian Jesus Passage ? I should think the passage on how marvellous Jesus is was not originally in Josephus, but that the separate passage on a James brother of Jesus was (and Origen thought it obvious that this meant James the Just brother of Jesus Christ). Carrier claims to have shown it very probable that it was the word Christos which was accidently incorporated into the text. I have not read it yet but think there are other reasons why Josephus would not have used this word. Anyway lets have rational discourse, hey, not accusations of conspiracy theory. I do not have a dog in this race!

          • Carrier has published an article to make that case. To treat the fact that someone has published an article on the subject as though that can settle a matter independently of the question of how the arguments are evaluated by scholars in relevant fields, is to engage in the same sort of picking and choosing from scholarship that conservative Christians regularly do.

          • redpill99

            What is the scholarly arguments that “called Christ” was/not an interpolation and without this, Josepheus was referring to another James unrelated to NT James?

          • The fact that Origen refers to the James passage in Josephus no less than three times, using the exact words we find in Josephus including λεγομενου
            Χριστου is a fly in the Myther ointment. It’s extremely difficult for them to use their fall back ad hoc argument of “interpolation!” given that Origen was writing too early for it to be credible that Christians were busily doctoring texts while they were still a marginalised and occasionally persecuted minority sect.

            So Carrier points to the fact that what Origen says about the context of this reference to James doesn’t sound like what Josephus says, since Josephus doesn’t say the later fall of Jerusalem was punishment for the execution of James. He therefore concludes that Origen wasn’t remembering Josephus at all and was muddling him up with Hegesippus.

            This argument fails on multiple fronts. Firstly, if he was simply misremembering Hegesippus and then confusing him with Josephus, it is very odd that we have exactly the phrase we find in Josephus – τον αδελφον Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου in two of the times he mentions the passage and a version of it adjusted grammatically for context (αδελφος Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου) in the third.

            Secondly, Carrier completely ignores the scholarship that analyses why Origen attributes things to Josephus that don’t appear to be there. Both Wataru Mizugaki and Zvi Baras detail why Origen would claim these things about Josephus in two separate papers in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (Wayne State University Press, 1987) – see W. Mizugaki, “Origen and Josephus” pp. 325-337 and Z. Baras, “The Testimonium Flavianum and the Martyrdom of James”, pp. 338-348. As Mizugaki explains, Origen was not a historian looking at his sources with some form of objectivity. He was a Christian exegete, looking at them through the distorting lens of his religious convictions. So he tended to see his sources “say” things that aren’t actually there. Mizugaki gives other examples of Origen telling us Josephus “says” things that he doesn’t actually “say” but which Origen is reading into the text for exegetical reasons.

            In fact, the sequence of events following the execution of James could easily be read by an exegete to lead directly from the death of James to the fall of Jerusalem, even though Josephus in no way makes that link.

            Thirdly, Carrier’s “solution” to the James passage in Josephus is the old Myther standby of claiming that the “Jesus” in question was actually the next high priest, “Jesus son of Damneus”. There are a whole raft of problems with this contrivance, not least of which is the immediate context. A few lines later Josephus tells us of the deposed High Priest Hanan currying favour with the new one, Jesus ben Damneus. This would be a remarkable state of affairs if Hanan had just killed ben Damneus’ brother, yet, oddly, Josephus doesn’t comment on this strange turn of events. Carrier’s twisting of the story to fit his a priori assumption doesn’t make sense.

            Over and over again the contrived ways Mythers try to use to make inconvenient evidence go away just gets them deeper and deeper in tangled nonsense.

          • $41348855

            Thanks for this. Carrier claims to be bringing an unprecedented scientific rigour to the question of a historical Jesus, but on the matter of the Josephan references he falls down on the basics. The historicist only needs one of the references to be authentic but the mythicist needs both of them to be spurious. Or to put it another way, if two coins are flipped the historicist only needs one head, but the mythicist must get two tails. Carrier has set himself up as an expert on probability but, apparently, he hasn’t noticed this.

          • redpill99

            thanks, yeah i used to debate over at and Jesus called Christ was an interpolation since “”Jesus son of Damneus” was the dogma.

          • And “dogma” is the word. The “Jesus = ben Damneus” theory has way too many problems to be credible. Though, as always, Carrier has increasingly convoluted “solutions” that spiral further and further into incoherence. For example, he tries to get around the implications of ben Damneus cosying up with his brother’s killer, Hanan ben Hanan, by claiming the “high priest” who ben Hanan is giving gifts to in XX.9.2 is not actually ben Damneus but is really the Jesus ben Gamaliel mentioned later in XX.9.4. Except in XX.9.4 Josephus tells us that Jesus ben Gamaliel only became high priest that that later point in his narrative:

            “And NOW Jesus, the son of Gamaliel, became the successor
            of Jesus, the son of Damneus, in the high priesthood, which the king had
            taken from the other”

            So Carrier somehow needs this to have happened later in his story, but for the currying of favour with a high priest by ben Hanan mentioned earlier to have happened with this later high priest and not the one that was being discussed at that earlier point.

            It’s enough to make your head spin.

            You really need to have drunk the Myther kool aid for this gibberish pastiche of ad hoc nonsense to be in any way convincing. Yet Carrier remains convinced of his vast genius and attributes his marginal kook status to a great conspiracy.

          • MattB

            Carrier’s exegesis skills just go-off the rails here. It’s funny how gullible people( his internet infidels) are for his work. He tries to persuade people to think that his work is going to become the “mainstream” view one day. This dude has way too much pride in himself.

            Tacitus, Josephus, The Gospels, the New Testament, Pliny, Thallus,etc… are still not good enough for Carrier. I don’t think Carrier would even believe in Jesus existence if Jesus had lived 200 years ago. He’s always going to find some sort-of “ad-hoc” approach to the evidence. And that’s what irritates me the most about him, is his intellectual dishonesty as a historian.

          • David Hillman

            ? ?

        • Ignorantia Nescia

          The big argument is over the extent of the interpolations in Josephus – I
          do not think anyone sensible denies the Jesus and James quotes are at
          least partly interpolated do they?

          The reference in Antiquities 18 is widely accepted as an interpolation, yes. The only recent scholar I know of who considered the passage completely authentic was Thiede, but scholars may object to calling him a scholar. Whether he was sensible is a question I leave for yourself to decide. In any case, his theory was that Josephus believed in two Messiahs, an Aaronic and a Davidic one, who would be Jesus and Vespasian respectively. However, Josephus would have only bothered with the Davidic Messiah – he didn’t care for the priestly Messiah.

          You won’t be surprised if I inform you that Thiede has failed to carry the consensus. 😉

  • Is it goofier to affirm the historicity of Matthew’s zombie saints or to deny the scientific consensus on climate change?

    • That’s a tough one. Both are pretty goofy! But I would have to go with the former, even though the latter involves denying much stronger evidence directly available to the denialist. 🙂

  • redpill99

    BTW are you aware that Skeptic Magazine current issue is devoted to Jesus myth? The cover Jesus is dressed in a business suit. the author does not identify his area of expertise but is a “skeptic”. He calls Ehrman’s case weak, and that the strength of Jesus and other myths – Horus and Mithra- to be much stronger. He then concludes based on Tacitus that Jesus existed but that nothing can be said about Jesus historically since the NT is pure myth.

    • Who is the “he” who concludes these things? And what was that about “Horus and Mithra”? Smells like Zeitgeist/Acharya S style crap.

      • If “Skeptic” shares anonymous articles which are unskeptical about the stuff Acharya S peddles, then it really needs to change its name.

      • redpill99

        I saw it while grocery shopping – my grocery store has a magazine selection and I read it there standing up.

        Current Issue: Volume 19 Number 1

        Did Jesus exist? This issue will begin shipping
        mid-March 2014.

        Did Jesus Exist?
        What the Evidence Reveals by Tim Callahan –

        • Ignorantia Nescia

          This is his website. Qualifications in biochemistry and arts, with an enthusiast’s interest in comparative mythology but no degrees in a relevant subject. Seems like an affable guy, though, which is quite rare.

          • redpill99

            enthusiast’s interest in comparative mythology explains why he thinks Jesus/Mithra so compelling.

            He is “skeptical” of the historical method as Ehrman uses.

            Many mythicists agree multiple independent attestations is a reasonable criteria but that Paul and Mark and Matthew and Luke are not independent but interdependent.

          • Ignorantia Nescia

            Yeah. Those types are always quick to buy the Mithras bull.

            It also mentions him being an old pal of Shermer. That may well explain why it was published.

          • redpill99

            Ehrman quotes a Roman historian on Mithra but of course that doesn’t satisfy skeptics.

            over at freeratio they claim that Tacitus “may” got his source from NT and Christians and therefore do not represent an independent source, and therefore Tacitus witness is “worthless”

            I think skeptics use the word “may” or “possible” then claim that if you can find reasons for doubt, the source lacks credibility. Josephus TF is obvious candidate.

    • Neko

      Ha ha that settles it!

  • The article is getting some discussion, mostly from mythicists, over on the Bible and Interpretation site. I do hope that some of you will share there some of the points that you’ve made here, if you have not already done so!

    • Of the twelve names who have responded there (apart from your own) I am unable to identify a single one who has argued a case that Jesus did not exist. Which of those twelve names do you think are “mythicists”?

      Or do you agree with Casey’s apparent definition of “mythicist” and include anyone who has published or written anything that could be construed as being open to the question and are prepared to accept an HJ just as much as they are prepared to accept a MJ — even those who currently write on the assumption that there was an HJ?

      Why have you retreated to here to make your criticisms instead of defending your post on the bibleinterp site where it was posted? Trying to excuse yourself on the false claim that “most” commentators there are “mythicists” doesn’t look very honest or brave.

      • $41348855

        In your comment on the site you gave a list of mythicists and said that not one of them had given the merest hint of embracing conspiracy theories. In my own comment there I pointed that Raphael Lataster and Richard Carrier – two of the people you mention – think that material from Tacitus, Philo and Cassius Dio has been deliberately suppressed because of its inconvenience for Christianity. This looks like more than a hint of embracing conspiracy theories.

        • David Hillman

          I do not know enough about this particular theory to know if there is much evidence. If these two think there is this does not make them conspiracy theorists in a perjorative sense. Real conspiracies do happen certainly -e.g. the Gulf of Tonkin incident- and probably – e.g. the Reichstag Fire. What makes conspiracy theory bad is its use to explain away social movements and social changes as due to plots by secret alliances. This would include attributing the rise of Christianity to a plot rather than to social changes and crises in the value systems of various classes in the Eastern Mediteranean. Conspiracy theories are often entertaining, always paranoid, and usually in danger of veering to various forms of racism. Avoiding conspiracy theory is not done by denying conspiracies ever exist, but by looking for the more fundamental causes of social change. The Black Hand Gang was not for instance the fundamental cause of the First World War.But you argue that by citing the facts. If you think R.L. and R.C. are wrong about Tacitus etc show them their facts are wrong. Don’t call them names.

          • $41348855

            See my reply to Neil Godfrey.

        • McGrath’s reference to conspiracy theory – which is what I was addressing — is the claim that mythicists argue that the whole Christianity/HJ thing was the result of a conspiracy.

          If you are going to raise the question of interpolations in the manuscripts — which is not the basis of the argument for mythicism at all — then you are going to find your definition of “conspiracy theory” is found advanced more often among mainstream classicists and ancient historians and biblical scholars than anywhere else, because it is a simple truism that many of our surviving manuscripts (not just those relevant to biblical studies) have been in various ways doctored. Even ancient scholars at the Alexandrian library knew that and even came up with efforts to try to identify these lapses and contaminations in the surviving manuscripts. Bart Ehrman even has two books addressing this very phenomena as it applies to NT studies.

          • $41348855

            In fact, the article was about an alleged conspiracy in the current academic establishment to suppress the myth theory, but the conversation wandered onto the question of a possible conspiracy at the origin of Christianity. I’m not suggesting that mythicists are unduly preoccupied with conspiracies.

            I would suggest that if their theory is right it would probably involve a pretty big conspiracy, whether or not they realise it. Although we have evidence of other disputes in early Christian history we have no evidence of a debate about whether or not Jesus existed. This seems significant.

          • What do you mean by conspiracy and what words are you referring to, exactly? Everyone knows- – anti-mythicists themselves know and have said so — that mythicism has zilch chance of being accepted in mainstream biblical studies and anyone who tries is asking for damage to their career or publishing record. That’s not a conspiracy but it’s a simple fact of life. Even Maurice Casey admits as much in his newest book; Joseph Hoffmann has said so bluntly; Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson (not mythicists) also say so and compare the current hostility among NT scholars unfavorably with what went on in the field of OT over so-called “minimalism”.

            That’s nothing to do with conspiracy theory. What happened to Thomas L. Thompson and the treatment dished out to members of the “Copenhagen school” for many years was exactly what is happening now with mythicism- — only more intense because Jesus is so much more important than David and Abraham.

            McGrath here is a classic demonstration of how it works. You don’t even have to argue for a mythicist theory but merely be open to the possibility for him to brand you.

          • $41348855

            Neil, the question is how you interpret the rejection of the myth theory. Is it like rejecting continental drift, or is it like rejecting cold fusion? It could hardly be considered unjust if the job prospects of a chemist were undermined by his belief in cold fusion. The chemist himself, however, may regard it as the result of a conspiracy. I will let you decide which analogy is more apt.

            By the way, I thought your recent remarks on the Bible and Interpretation website were very revealing.

          • Herro

            >The chemist himself, however, may regard it as the result of a conspiracy. I will let you decide which analogy is more apt.

            Stuart, I don’t think anybody is disputing that the chemist *might* regard it as a result of a conspiracy. That’s not the issue.

            Here’s what James says in the comment section over at The Bible and Interpretation:

            >I have yet to find a version of mythicism which does not resort to conspiracy theory sooner or later – sometimes with ancient Christians conspiring to turn their mythical figure into a historical one, sometimes with modern scholars conspiring to keep mythicism out of the academy, sometimes both.

            Neil Godfrey posted a list of mythicists and people who are open to mythicism and simply asked James to present the evidence for any of those people explaining either the origins of Christianity or the NT-studies field’s rejection of mythicism by it being a “conspiracy”.

            I don’t recall seeing the mythicists I’ve read (Doherty, Price, Carrier) do either of those things (and suggesting interpolations in writings isn’t an accusation of a conspiracy).

            So let’s imagine that another chemist claims that the chemist who got rejected beleives that it was because of a conspiracy and says that this shows how much of a loon that chemist is. Shouldn’t that chemist have to back up his claim?

          • $41348855

            Herro, I don’t see any preoccupation with conspiracy theories among mythicists. My point would be different. If the myth theory is right then there must have been a debate about the existence of Jesus among early Christians. Since we don’t have any evidence of this debate I think mythicists woud have to say that the evidence has disappeared. Does this make them conspiracy nuts? No, not in my opinion. It probably does mean that they have to appeal to a conspiracy. I don’t think this is irratonal so much as it is pointless. In the absence of the evidence that is needed, the myth theory is not worth pursuing, in my opinion.

  • redpill99

    Have you ever considered to work with Bart Ehrman Marucie Causy Elaine Pagels Roman historians on mystery religions et al, a multi-volume set on Jesus existence vs Jesus myth and the claims of Robert Price and Doherty and Carrier? The target audience being the new atheists like Richard Dawkins? A scholarly treatment.

    a definitive multivolume everything from historical method to historicity of the gospels and Acts, Q, aramaic scholars, to scholarly investigation in alleged parallels of Jesus and the mystery religions etc. ? Josepheus TF, etc. for scholars and highly motivated autodictacted layman such as myself. Is Philo and other Roman historians failure to mention Jesus?

    I’m not aware of any definitive work addressing these issues.