Is Mythicism an Ebola-Like Virus?

Is Mythicism an Ebola-Like Virus? August 11, 2014

Jonathan Bernier wrote a blog post about how people reacted to an instance of “Ebola-like symptoms” and their failure to recognize that such symptoms did not mean that this was a case of Ebola. He uses this as an illustration of parallelomania – the tendency of mythicists, but also an earlier generation of scholars, to assume that anything that is similar probably shares a genetic relationship.

Doctors know that many illnesses have similar symptoms and yet are not closely related. Scholars know that some elements pop up time and again in human storytelling and symbolism and yet do not depend on one another.

And so just because mythicism has spread virally, and causes some people to get feverish, does not make mythicism an Ebola-like virus.

Click through to read Bernier’s entire post, which offers a helpful treatment of syncretism in relation to ancient Judaism as well as Christianity.

mythicist parallelomania

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  • Gary

    Of course, I don’t think so. But first thing that struck me, seeing the title, was “Is religion an Ebola-like virus?”
    Seems to be passed on to other people, by close contact with previously infected people.
    Sometimes there seems to be a genetic component, the children of infected people, seem to end up with the same condition.
    Symptoms include acting irrationally, for no perceived purpose, including chanting, speaking in tongues, giving money away, spending hours of labor not directly associated with their own well-being. Example, actually associating with people that have real Ebola.
    A certain percentage recover from the condition, only to become infected by another strain of the condition (better known as another denomination), usually occurring because of close contact with the other denomination.
    Some, if not most, end up dying with the condition, in the delerious state of thinking they are going to another location, usually a paradise. Others infected, believe the person is going to a better state also, but usually witness the person being buried in the ground, or their ashes being presented in a jar.
    Ok, I don’t buy it, but there certainly seem to be parallels. I guess I’m infected, too.

  • Ian

    Ebola is something you absolutely, positively want to generate false positives about. It is important to remove obviously false results, but any disease so potentially devastating deserves a very low standard of evidence before action is taken.

    And it seems to me some mythicists put forward similar arguments about why Jesus mythicism should likewise be more of a default position, given the potential harm to individuals and society by providing any kind of cover to harmful religious conservatives. And that argument is fallacious, I think, because it excludes the middle (as conservatives do). If Jesus is not a mythical figure, then he might as well be God incarnate.

    It seems to me further that some historicists can get caught up in the same trap, wanting to make their confidence higher than it is when unpacked. Confusing their confidence in the implausibility of mythicist claims with their confidence in their own historical conclusions. Again excluding the middle, at least for the purpose of making clear how unpersuasive they find mythicist proposals.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Hi, Ian. Interesting comment. I am a bit unclear regarding what the middle would be in this context. Either Jesus existed or he did not. Perhaps the middle to which you refer is the position that Jesus existed yet was not God incarnate. Is that a correct reading of what you mean by the “middle”?

      • Ian

        Nobody I’ve read doubts that a huge number of Yeshuas existed, few people would bet against some of them being wandering teachers, healers and exorcists. Clearly the teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels go back to somebody. Did Jesus exist? you need to define the question much more clearly before you can say “either he did or he did not”.

        Maybe you mean “either the biographical narrative about Jesus recorded in the gospels traces back to the life of a real person, or it does not”. But how much would count? If 25% of the pericopae traced back to a ‘Jesus’ (who, let’s just say, happened to be named something nearer Joshua), would that count? 50%, if the guys name was actually Jesus? Are some bits of the story more important than others? Was Jesus a historical figure if he wasn’t born in Bethlehem, if he didn’t undergo a trial by Pilate, if he was just some unremarkable disciple of John the Baptist who was combined with the figure seen in a set of visions by a Jerusalem sect?

        So maybe you mean “either the documents left by the early Jesus movement indicate a process of mythologization around a historic core, or they indicate a process of historic construction to anchor a mythic core.” But are those the only alternatives? Perhaps Jesus was the incarnate son of God, and the gospels are not mythic at all. Perhaps both processes happened and we’re left with a structure who’s layers are hard to distinguish.

        Assuming that mythicists are merely putting forward the idea that ‘Jesus did not exist’, while “historicists” (to force the terminology) say he did, is naive in the extreme.

        Mythicists, like scholars need to put forward a coherent account of the historical process that left the pattern of evidence we observe. So far none of those accounts has been convincing to scholars, and there are few similarities between mythicist accounts. Similarly a “historicist” doesn’t say “Jesus Existed”, they try to figure out the processes behind the evidence, and posit a historical person as a major source in that process. Scholars also don’t agree on the details. Read two books on the “historical Jesus” (i.e. books about what among the evidence can be traced back to a historical person), and you get different views of this Jesus.

        So the idea that this discussion is about “either Jesus existed or he did not” seem hopelessly naive to me.

        [Edit: typos and clarity].

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Thank you for your response, Ian. I am having a hard time formulating a response of my own, mostly because the terms in which you phrase things are quite far removed from the way in which historians, including those who study the historical Jesus, normally go about articulating matters. Let me say simply the following. Yes, Jesus is not the only person who went by that name (that “Yeshua” is a more exact transliteration than the standard English form “Jesus” is just sheer and irrelevant pedantry); yes, there is probably much in the gospels that he never did or said or was done to him (although from at least the time of Collingwood historians have known that history does not consist primarily if at all in the work of judging which sources describe “real” events and which do not); yes, historians disagree on various matters regarding his life (which says only that the study of history is a properly dialogical work, not unlike that of the natural sciences). The thing is, I have no idea what any of that that has to do with the ontic reality that an entity either exists or does not exist.

          • Ian

            The point is, if you say “Does X exist or not?” you have to talk about what you mean by X. “Does X exists or not?” is only a closed problem *if we can say precisely what X is*.

            A rather trite example: “Either Santa Claus is a real person or he isn’t.” Right? Well, I took my son to see Santa Claus, so he obviously exists. Oh that isn’t allowed? How about Saint Nicholas? Or the guy who changed his legal name to Santa Claus and dresses in red and white? Does Santa Claus have to ride a magic sleigh and come down chimneys on Christmas eve to count as Santa Claus? Isn’t that rather culturally arrogant?

            It would perhaps be as simple as you suggest if we had direct access to ontology, or if ontology were even a well defined thing that we could assess. As it is, names are vague.

            This plays out in arguments with mythicists all the time, as people jump around different definitions of ‘Mythical’ or ‘Historical Jesus’ for rhetorical effect.

            If you want to make your opponent seem unreasonable you minimize the set of possible histories their claims fit, and pretend (by X or not-X) that your claim covers the rest.

            I’m not saying that this makes all dialog or scholarship impossible, don’t read more into what I said than I said. I think historical-critical scholars of HJ generally have a pretty consistent ‘core’ of what they mean when they refer to Jesus. But in my experience outside of that group the referent varies *wildly*, and claiming “Jesus existed” is naive and meaningless, without being able to say “what set of historical possibilities would you accept as being labelled with the phrase ‘Jesus existed’.

            I have been mistaken for being both a mythicist and an evangelical christian, by different groups, based on holding roughly the scholarly consensus on Jesus.

          • arcseconds

            There’s a bit of a cross-over here with the analytic-philosophical literature on names.

            There is (or was) two main views: names as a kind of shorthand for definite descriptions (I think this is due to Russell) and a causal account due originally to Saul Kripke.

            In the definite description view, ‘Ian’ is short for ‘the guy who comments on Exploring Our Matrix and has that cartoony avatar image and was once a devout Christian but now isn’t and did a thesis on the mathematics of evolution and… ‘.

            Whereas on the causal view, there was a moment where you were named ‘Ian’ (by your parents, maybe) and so long as I’m causally connected with that moment of naming in the right kind of way, when I use ‘Ian’ in certain contexts it means you, no matter what I believe about you.

            Both have their problems, but I think the causal account has a lot to be said for it. It’s intuitive (to me, at any rate) that someone could be wrong about almost everything about a person, so that any definite description they could come up with would actually not be true of anyone (or be true of more than one person), but still successfully refer to that person.

            It’s also a bit more plausible with reference in science. We thought all sorts of things about atoms in, say, the 1800s, and many of them turned out to be false. What we usually say about this is not that ‘atom’ referred to a non-existent thing in 1850 but in the 1920s came to refer to something, but rather it did refer to the same things we now refer to as atoms, but many of the statements people were inclined to make about atoms back then turned out to be false or partially accurate at best.

            Although I still think there’s some point at which it’s at the very least highly misleading to say ‘Jesus existed’ if there was a Yeshua who did in some sense cause Christianity to come into being, and the name ‘Jesus’ is connected with this person in the right kinds of ways, yet none of the fairly minimal position agreed on by the scholars is actually true of him, i.e. he didn’t preach, he didn’t have followers during his lifetime, he didn’t live at the time we think he did, he wasn’t crucified, etc.

            Anyway, roughly speaking one can perhaps model a mythicist as starting out with a definite descriptiony view of ‘Jesus,’ where the definite description is appropriately rich, possibly including supernatural elements, and denying that there’s anyone matching that description, but from there continuing to deny ‘Jesus’ having a real referent, even the minimal Jesus of the scholarly consensus or even a more minimal, pure causal account.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            This is all fine and interesting, but I note that none of it actually generates knowledge. At best it’s caviling about the usage of words. There’s no light in such operations, and as such qualified scholars very quickly shrug their shoulders get back to the actual work of doing history. As I will now do.

          • arcseconds

            Surely it’s clear from Ian’s comment that ‘Did Jesus exist?’ doesn’t have a single, clear meaning that’s transparent to everyone.

            It turns out that the practice of using names itself is not all that transparent either.

            This isn’t simply an academic discussion: many people like to say “Jesus didn’t exist”, but on further discussion what they really mean by that is “there wasn’t a person who matches the Gospel description” and they really don’t care either way about the existence of a minimal historical Jesus, and think that’s more or less saying Jesus didn’t exist too. I just had a discussion with someone like this the other day.

            You might not feel the need to be clear on what questions you’re trying to answer, but that doesn’t mean the practice is without value.

            By the way, don’t you think that insulting an entire academic area is a wee bit juvenile? It’s also a little… odd… getting a complaint by a biblical scholar, of all people (and one of whom apparently has an interest in hermeneutics, of all things), that philosophy doesn’t generate knowledge. That’s just asking for me to demand an account from you of what knowledge you think biblical studies actually generates! I note that things agreed on by a consensus of scholars in biblical studies does not actually amount to very much, so on the face of it it doesn’t really look like there’s a large and ever-growing amount of knowledge being generated. One could also complain that it’s even less useful and less interesting to the general public than philosophy is…

            I will now storm off to my real world job to do all sorts of wonderfully useful and relevant things that people actually care about! So there!

          • Ian

            Avoiding poor reasoning indirectly generates knowledge by avoiding creation and propagation of fallacy.

            Countless hours are spent arguing past our conversation partners in ways that a little careful thought could mitigate. Hours that could be used for doing more history.

            I’d venture that a bit more understanding of what is being argued by mythicists, and how responding can feed into their misunderstandings, would be a positive step. Throwing your hands up and saying “all too highfalutin’ for me” isn’t helpful, I’d suggest.

            This is hardly advanced or highbrow philosophy. It is just basic thinking about language. It is a bit worrying you’re quite so dismissive, as a specialist in hermeneutics (a point arc seems to have made also).

          • Ian

            Right. The philosophy of naming gets very dense and tricky very quickly.

            I think the problem I raise isn’t dependent on that, though, as you point out. It is more obvious.

            Personally I end up rather more inclined to see names as transient pronouns with significance that is primarily linguistic rather than ontological (Kaplan?). But then, I tend towards a rather performative view of language generally.

          • Anonymous Coward

            At least on Carrier/Doherty style mythicism, I think the best way to put it in PhiloLang terms is causa: the original entity that was dubbed* Jesus**, and who is causally connected in the right way to our word “Jesus,” was a fictional entity (albeit a fiction believed to be real by the early Christians).

            This of course brings in issues about the ontological status of fictional entities….

            *I was tempted to use “initially baptized” per Kripke’s usage but that would seem to confuse things in a discussion about Christianity!

            **Or you know Yeshua or whatever…

          • I think mythicists really do genuinely believe that their proposal along these lines is somehow simpler and thus more elegant and more probable than other more complex scenarios, in which Jesus was a historical figure about whom legends and fabrications developed. But whether in history or the natural sciences, there have always been simple and elegant proposals which do not fit the evidence, and their simplicity does not count in their favor in those circumstances.

          • Anonymous Coward

            There may be mythicists who think this, but I wouldn’t rely on a “simplicity and elegance” argument here, and I don’t _think_ Carrier does either.

          • Part of the problem I think is that simpler does not necessarily equal more probable. Often it is the complex explanation that is correct. However, the simpler explanation is more likely to be testable so it’s the best place to start. In science, it will be easier to test for the influence of one factor rather than six. Moreover, if it proves impossible to design a experiment to test for one factor, the odds of successfully testing for six is likely to be remote. Similarly, if there is insufficient evidence to establish the unlikelihood of a simple historical explanation, then there may be little chance of it ever being sufficient to establish the likelihood of an explanation that depends on the influence of multiple factors.

  • Any virus that causes surliness, irrational flights of fancy, and an inexhaustible appetite for the ranting of Richard Carrier is one that I think needs to be contained and eradicated.

    • Jim

      Are you perhaps implying that Carrier rants like someone who is infected with viral encephalitis? Naw – just see the exchange between Carrier and commenter James in the West (who lays down some awesome perspectives) in the comments section of (especially the comment number 11 back and forth). Now does that sound like the rantings of a thus infected person?

      [Btw, awesome perspectives on a professional scholarly approach in general whoever you are James in the West]

  • Mary B Moritz

    In “Mythicist Reason?”, Jonathan Bernier says: “Yet hypotheses are just that: hypotheses. They are ideas to be tested for their truth value, and that test is the work of reason. If intelligent aimed at coherent then reason aims at correspondence. Reason asks “Is this hypothesis warranted by the data?” Here mythicism fails dramatically. Its arguments are unsound from ground up. The supposed parallels between ancient myth and the gospels evaporate with remarkable haste. ” – excellent critique I guess.
    I am unclear, though, what the graphic should demonstrate? JX was not “mythycical”, not the “sun god” of Egypt. … etc. This “Mystical Milwaukee” is esoterical nonsense, just not worth your blog!

    • The graphic is an illustration of mythicist parallelomania in action.

      • MattB

        Hey Dr. M, do you remember the name of a book you posted on of your blog posts regarding the historical Jesus? I think it had to do with historiography and the New Testament.


        • Can you be more specific?

          • MattB

            I remember you were blogging one day a few months back about lectures regarding the historical Jesus and you referenced a book about historiography. I think it might have been written by a woman but I don’t remember the name of the book or the author.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Might you be thinking about Beth Sheppard’s excellent book, “The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament”? Even if you aren’t, definitely worth a look!

          • MattB

            Yes! That’s it….Thank you so much!

  • Michael Wilson

    In case anyone was curious, Osiris was not a sun god eithier. But who care about facts when we have to discredit those anti-facts Christians?

    • After decades of dogging creationists, we nonbelievers are happy to finally have an online hoax that tells us what we want to hear.

    • arcseconds

      I assumed the graphic was a joke…

  • Jonathan Bernier

    The interesting thing is that it never occurred to me that I was comparing mythicism to Ebola…rather, I was comparing uninformed panic around Ebola to parallelomania, and then using mythicism as a particularly egregious example of parallelism. That said Dr. McGrath, I love your take on my post, especially the following line: “And so just because mythicism has spread virally, and causes some people to get feverish, does not make mythicism an Ebola-like virus.” Brilliant.

    • Well, I hope it is clear that I took your post and ran with it in a slightly different direction, one that is offered very much tongue-in-cheek. 🙂

      • Jonathan Bernier

        Yeah, and I like that direction!