The Myth of Mythicism’s Newness

The Myth of Mythicism’s Newness September 2, 2014

The year before his book on the subject was published, Shirley Jackson Case wrote an article on the question of the historicity of Jesus. I suspect that few modern mythicists have read either. But the article is now available for free online, courtesy of JSTOR. Take a look at it, see how many mythicists there were a century ago, and then let me know if you think that recent claims of a mythicist “resurgence” are justified in our time, as opposed to in 1911, when the ideas were not new but had seen a growth in the attention they were getting from scholars.

S. J. Case’s book on the topic is also online, thanks to the Internet Archive.


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  • Neko

    Thank you very much. The Case article is an absorbing read that but for certain giveaways I would have assumed was contemporary!

  • I think there’s a pretty obvious (but not very large) non-historicist resurgence today, especially in comparison with the 1980s and 1990s. But nobody denies that Jesus non-historicism has had brighter days over a century ago. So there’s no myth that mythicism is new.

    • guest

      On the internet but in academia? Yeah, right? If so, then why are Carrier, Price, and Brodie the only qualified scholars who hold this?

  • Psycho Gecko

    It’s going to keep coming up unless someone actually finds any contemporary evidence for Jesus, which has so far been absent. Even the gospels are known to have not been written during the time period when the events were said to have taken place. Even if someone wanted to stick their fingers in their ears and deny the evidence of fraud in the writings of Josephus, he wasn’t even born until after Jesus was said to have died.

    Any other claim made by the bible only gets accepted if other sources back it up, except for the historicity of Jesus. Those who care about truth in history just want Jesus held to the same standard as folks like Diaochan, for example.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      “Any other claim made by the bible only gets accepted if other sources back it up, except for the historicity of Jesus.” Simply not true, and in fact very bad historiography. In fact, it can’t work that way. If any given datum requires corroboration then I can ask what corroborates the corroborating data. Under such a situation, if A can only be true when corroborated by B then we must ask what corroborates B. If A then the argument is circular, if C then the argument succumbs to infinite regress. If neither A nor C then B needs not be corroborated. But if B needs not be corroborated then why must A?

      As for the demand for contemporary attestation: do you have any idea how little ancient history we would have if a person’s existence can be affirmed if and only if we have contemporary attestation? Spoiler alert: not much. But in point of fact it can be debated whether one or more of the Evangelists were contemporaries. If, for instance, James Crossly (hardly a conservative scholar by any stretch of the imagination) is correct to date Mark’s Gospel c. 42 then, assuming that the author was older than 12, she or he would presumably be a contemporary of the events described.

      I would thus submit that we need one further condition under which it will keep coming up: amateurs need to continue demanding absolutely absurd levels of proof to defend a position that there is little reason to question.

      • Psycho Gecko

        Odd how he dates it to 42 AD when it references events that occurred in 70 AD. Most scholars actually put the Gospel of Mark to between 65 to 75 AD. That’s a long gap for witness testimony during a time when people didn’t necessarily live to the ripe old ages we enjoy today.

        But please, name one other claim from the bible that is taken at face value by most scholars without someone having to go to other sources to back it up.

        There’s no need to demand absurd levels of proof to defend a position. All I ask for are the same levels of proof as shown with other historical figures. I pointed out Diaochan for that reason. She shows up as a figure who helps to cause a major disruption in the Imperial court, and the work talking about her is recognized as mythologized history, full of historical figures who have been somewhat exaggerated. Yet scholars have no trouble determining that she never existed.

        If they can so easily declare that about someone with no historical evidence who wasn’t credited as starting a major world religion, they should have no problem examining what must be a multitude of contemporary sources for such a figure as Jesus. A veritable cornucopia of sources to back up his existence.

        You know, when they find even a single one of them, they’ll get right on that.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          You seem to be talking at cross-purposes here.

          So, Mark’s Gospel *clearly* references events of 70 CE, yet most scholars date it to before 70? Hmmm. It’s almost as if qualified scholars realize that it doesn’t *clearly* reference events of 70 CE. And of course it doesn’t.

          Now, you note that qualified scholars have no problem identifying figures who do not exist. Yet only two qualified scholars currently argue that Jesus did not exist. Now, if qualified scholars have no problem identifying figures who do not exist, and if virtually all qualified scholars agree that Jesus did exist, would it not follow that this is because there is good reason to think that Jesus existed?

          As for things that are held “without corroboration.” Since you have made set the bar quite high, such that only evidence from sources contemporary to the events count as corroborating evidence, then almost everything held to be true about the ancient world is held without corroboration. There is very little that we know about the ancient world that is based upon the reports of contemporaries. Consider, for instance, Paul. If contemporaneous and extra-biblical corroboration is required then we have zero evidence for his existence. At that point however he cannot be used as evidence for what Christians believed before the gospels, as people such as Carrier are wont to do. So Paul’s existence would be a perfect example of something that virtually all scholars hold to be true, without corroboration, and which in fact even most mythicists do not dispute. In any case, even if there were not a single instance of something held to be true for which there was no corroborating, contemporary, and extra-biblical evidence it would not follow that such evidence was necessary.

          Again, the fundamental problem is that every word of your post reveals to me that you have no professional training in NT studies. Yet you presume to understand the field better than those of us who do. Where I come from, we call that arrogance.

          • Psycho Gecko

            My training is in history. You know, basic stuff, like having sources for your claims. Having documents you can back to, preferably people’s first hand accounts of what happened. Like the letters that Paul actually wrote. Those are his own personal firsthand accounts, so they help back up his existence. Unfortunately for you, Paul never actually met that Jesus fellow, so he is useless as a source.

            And yes, I know about the fakes, like the pastoral letters. The ones attributed to him but that weren’t actually written by him don’t prove anything about him, though.

            I’m not even necessarily talking about extra-biblical corroboration, and that’s where you tried to strawman me. The problem is that the gospels were written afterwards, in most cases people who simply couldn’t have had firsthand knowledge of the events in question because they weren’t alive yet based on when these things were written. So even if I decided to ignore the part where people put as much stock in tales of talking donkeys as they do of Jesus, the gospels themselves just don’t count as contemporary sources.

            As for why Christian scholars argue that the central figure to their religion had to have existed, while also claiming that a Chinese figure completely unrelated to their religion clearly didn’t exist on the basis of exactly the same amount of evidence for each, gee, that’s a toughy.

            Reminds me of how history about the Civil War emphasized the “Lost Cause of the South” narrative for so long despite being wrong. It’s almost as if some historians have lied about history. But where’s the basis to believe that?

            I mean, obviously they’ve always been willing to stick right to the truth, whether its Thucydides using Homer as a reference for historical data in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” or Karl Marx showing how all conflict was based on classes in “The Communist Manifesto” or David Barton showing how Thomas Jefferson, the guy who created an edition of the bible without any supernatural elements like the miracles, was clearly as evangelical a Christian as any today in “The Jefferson Lies”.

            Nope, I’m sure everyone you deem to be a qualified scholar as never allowed their personal biases to interfere with their scholarship, especially if they felt so strongly about the bible as to base their scholarly reputation and financial success on it.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            You wrote in your initial post: “Any other claim made by the bible only gets accepted if other sources back it up, except for the historicity of Jesus.” *The bible.* This treats the bible as a single source. Therefore, yes, your statement demands extra-biblical corroboration. If you did not mean what you meant then that’s on you. No straw man at all.

            But if we’re not dealing with the bible as a single source then things get a bit more complicated. Suddenly we don’t have a single source for Jesus’ existence but in fact, at minimum, four. Unless, of course, by a sleight of hand you make them into not-sources.

            You write here: “The problem is that the gospels were written afterwards, in most cases people who simply couldn’t have had firsthand knowledge of the events in question because they weren’t alive yet based on when these things were written.” Here’s the sleight of hand. I really have no idea why an author’s first-hand knowledge is given such emphasis. Ancient historians all the time use second-hand accounts. Sure, Thucydides defined historical knowledge as fundamentally and exclusively first-hand knowledge, but I would like to think that we’ve moved on since then.

            As for subjectivity, well, yeah, historians are subjective. So what? I have no idea why the subjectivity of “Christian historians” is anymore problematic than that of non-Christian historians. But of course this isn’t a Christian vs. non-Christian thing. Tom Brodie is a Christian priest who does not believe Jesus existed, Bart Ehrman is a non-Christian who thinks that he did. Heck, 50% of qualified NT scholars who hold publicly to a mythicist position are Christians. That undercuts somewhat your argument from bias, which of course is simply an instance of the genetic fallacy anyways.

            Regarding Paul. I still do not know how you have determined Paul existed and wrote some texts rather than the alternative position that there was never a Paul of Tarsus and that all the letters are forgeries. I do not hold to that position, mostly because it is really dumb, but it seems to follow as reasonably from mythicism’s radical hermeneutic of suspicion as does mythicism itself.

          • Mark

            Do you have any reason to think that Christian scholars are more likely to think that Jesus was not historical, than than Jewish or atheistic scholars are? I keep being amazed by this premise of polemic on the matter. I guess it’s true that typical online opponents of Internet Mythicism also claim to be christians and that Internet Mythicists claim to be atheists. If anything, I think, as an unbeliever, the reverse is true once you step outside the framework of internet trolling: believers are more prone to mythicism – historical existence is simply too vulgar for Christ – unbelievers surely almost uniformly take the opposing vulgar position. It is the atmosphere of ‘faith’ that leads to all kinds of curious ways of dealing with the material; docetism, for example, is pretty old (though it admittedly did make the concession that Jesus appeared at the time to ‘exist historically’.) It is transparent to an outsider that contemporary mythicism is basically a ‘heretical’ Christian sect; it would be hard to find an example of informed person who has adopted it who was simply from outside the framework. Even if the church had never happened and everything had come to an end with the destruction of the temple, and all we had were the letters of Paul, it would quite obvious to anyone knowledgeable about 2nd temple Judaism what had happened – as it would in the parallel cases of Sabbatai and Menachem Schneerson.

          • Psycho Gecko

            The letters from Paul themselves state that Paul never met Jesus except through “revelation”.

          • They do not say that unambiguously. They do, however, indicate that Paul met Jesus’ brother.

          • Psycho Gecko

            The first time Paul is mentioned seeing Jesus, it’s on Damascus Road after Jesus died. So that’s already a dead giveaway. Then there’s the part where he said he saw a bright light and heard a voice, but never saw anyone and was blinded for three days. He had to be led around by his traveling companions who either didn’t see anything, but heard gibberish, or they saw the light, but didn’t hear anything. Apparently the differences in the accounts are one reason historians question the reliability of the Acts as a historical source.

            I’m not seeing a lot of ambiguity here.

            As for me, if I was a historicist and pushing the idea that some guy named Yeshua was running around, it’d probably kill my theory if the only proof pointed to a guy who claimed to have a brother named Jesus.

            Of course, it turns out we’re talking about James the Just here, who was often referred to as the Lord’s Brother, but whose relationship to Jesus is unknown. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, for example, don’t consider him to have been Jesus’s brother. They consider that to have been a metaphorical reference. Kind of like how Paul says during First Corinthians that Jesus appeared to more than 500 brothers at once after he died, appearing lastly in that list to Paul. So that’s also Paul admitting he never saw Jesus except after Jesus died and was miraculously resurrected. Pretty sure the historicists don’t consider the resurrection real, nor do they consider “brother in christ” to be a sign of blood relation.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            You are quite right to say that “brother in Christ” does not signify a blood relation, which is why Carrier is so keen to explain away the appearance of this phrase in Col. 1:2. The already feeble attempt to interpret “brother of the Lord” as metaphorical is clearly undermined by the existence of a term which is genuinely metaphorical. The presence of both terms is quite obviously and naturally explained on the assumption that a distinction was being made between literal and metaphorical brothers.

            (It is particularly interesting that Carrier mentions Col. 1:2 so that he can dismiss it as post-Pauline. The fact that he can’t use the same trick with Philemon 16 probably explains why he doesn’t mention it at all.)

            When mythicists start appealing to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity to explain away evidence, they are really scraping the barrel.

          • Mythicism in a nutshell: You can’t trust even the earliest Christian sources when they say things that indicate there was a historical Jesus; you can trust much later Christian sources when they say things that can be quote mined in support of mythicism.

          • Psycho Gecko

            It’s not a matter of the doctrine. It’s the fact that the Roman Catholic church, who obviously considers Jesus a historical figure, doesn’t even believe that this guy was the brother of Jesus.

            But I’m glad you acknowledge that being a brother in the faith is no sign of blood relation and is a well-known metaphor. I got the bit about more than 500 brothers from 1 Corinthians 15, by the way. So when you have a guy called the brother of the lord and then a bunch of regular followers called the brother of the lord, it’s pretty clear why James the Just’s exact relationship to Jesus isn’t known.

            So there you go. Paul met one of the many guys named James wandering around the middle east, who was yet another brother in the faith, who no historian can say for sure was actually related to even the mythological Jesus, and who even the oldest sect of Christianity doesn’t acknowledge as Jesus’s brother (albeit for dumb religious reasons, but that tends to creep up in the discussion of a historical Jesus anyway).

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It seems that your misunderstanding is too deep for an attempt at correction to be worthwhile.

          • You seem not to even know that the texts in question distinguish between “brothers in the Lord” as a way of referring to Christians, and “brothers of the Lord” which clearly means something else. And you seem not to even know that the Catholic Church came to dispute that James was the biological brother of Jesus – but not that he was his relative – and that this was done in order to make possible the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

            How exactly do you expect to participate meaningfully in a discussion of a subject about which you have not informed yourself?

          • Mark

            Paul’s letters neither affirm nor deny that he had seen or heard Jesus before the crucifixion. Like everyone, Paul distinguishes between the ordinary perception of objects and mystical visions or ‘apocalypses’. Paul seems to have ‘revelations’ and to get caught up in the second heaven all the time, but 1 Cor 15 doesn’t purport to describe a ‘revelation’ in that sense, but something completely different that happened to him only once. The intended sequence of events in 1 Cor 15 is this: “There was a guy Jesus who had followers; he was crucified; he rose from the dead; a number of his followers saw him again then; a little later in the period I also saw him myself; all this happened a some years ago, some of those people are dead, but most are still living”. No one, he thinks, is still seeing Jesus in this sense, which is the ordinary sense in which one sees people and cars; rather his followers are hoping to see him again with his parousia, that is, his grand Arrival as perceptible ruler of humanity.

            These remarks are not intended as a ‘proof of historicity’, just as interpretation of Paul’s meaning.

          • There is nothing in 1 Cor. 15 in particular or Paul in general that suggests that anyone was a follower of Jesus prior to the crucifixion.

          • That is only true if you find mythicist interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11 persuasive, which professional scholars and historians obviously do not.

          • Clearly Paul understands Jesus’ statements to be directed towards someone, but is the intended audience a group of pre-crucifixion followers or is it the same post-resurrection church that Paul is addressing? I don’t think one has to be a mythicist to think that Paul is making a theological point about the meaning of Jesus’ death rather than a historical point about the actual events preceding it.

          • Paul E.

            This is an interesting viewpoint. So if the hypothesis is that the audience of the Lord’s statements in 1 Cor. 11 is the post-resurrection church, then Jesus was, pursuant to this hypothesis, betrayed post-resurrection, correct? And this betrayal in turn had, by necessity, nothing to do with the crucifixion? And if this is true, does this hypothesis have any explanation of this betrayal?

          • Why would that be? Don’t we think that some of the teachings attributed to Jesus in the gospels were put there by the evangelists to deal with issues that arose in the early church? I don’t see how that would alter the chronology of events.

          • Paul E.

            Ok, I must be missing something. I think you agreed that in 1 Cor. 11, Jesus’ words suggest an audience. The words are said to have been spoken on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. So then who is that audience at that time? I understood your comments to say that there is no suggestion in Paul that Jesus had pre-crucifixion/resurrection followers. I also thought you were stating that the audience for Jesus’ words could be the post-resurrection church. Would that not, in turn, necessitate that the night of Jesus’ betrayal, i.e. when he spoke the words in 1 Cor. 11, was post-crucifixion/resurrection?

            There are alternatives. One, the night of Jesus’ betrayal was pre-crucifixion/resurrection, but the audience was not his “followers.” I tend to think this is less likely than that they were, given the instructional nature of the wording. Two, the night of Jesus’ betrayal was pre-crucifixion/resurrection, but there was no actual audience at the time, and the words were held in a kind of suspended animation until they were needed for the intended audience later. I tend to find this less likely than an “actual audience” hypothesis, as there is no apparent need for those words to have been spoken at the time they were if there was no current need for them. Three, the words are supposed to be understood as purely metaphorical, including the chronological aspect. This, however, is without an apparent explanation for the chronological aspect as far as I can tell. Four, you meant the word “followers” to be confined to earthly followers, and the followers that were the audience in 1 Cor. 11 were heavenly. I am sure I am missing some alternatives as well.

            Where do you come down on this?

          • I think the reason that Paul doesn’t tell us who the original audience was is because he doesn’t think it important. I think that when Paul says he is passing on what he “received from the Lord.” he may really be claiming that this is something that was revealed to him. I don’t see how we can be sure that it wasn’t Paul who came up with the idea of Jesus making all sorts of solemn pronouncements at his last meal before he was crucified.

            I would note that there is some scholarly opinion that “handed over” is a better translation than “betrayed.” I don’t think we can be sure that Paul viewed any of the things he knew as going back to eyewitnesses of the events preceding Jesus’ crucifixion.

            I am personally doubtful that Jesus actually said any of those words. I think they may well have been attributed to him later to justify and explain the practices of the early church.

          • Paul E.

            Well, I agree we can’t be “sure” about these things, but there is evidence, so it makes sense to try to assess what the possible explanations are, and then assess of them what may be the most probable.

            From your response, it looks like you lean to something like 3 above, i.e. the words are purely metaphorical or perhaps a hybrid, i.e. invented as something that did not actually occur but that Paul perhaps wanted the Corinthians to think actually occurred? If they are purely metaphorical and everyone understood them as such, then the chronological aspect remains a sore thumb. Why is it there? Not only is it unnecessary, it actually may take away from the argumentative power of what Paul is trying to say in that part of his letter. And the anecdote does not really directly support Paul’s argument. If you are going to invent something metaphorical, you could come up with something a lot better than that, I think. And I would note that, yes, you are correct that the translation could be “handed over,” but that seems to me irrelevant to the discussion – the chronological aspect is not affected by whether it is a “betrayal” or “handing over” even if there is a distinction (and, of course, there needn’t be, although there can be).

            If they were invented for a particular purpose and at the same time not meant to be understood as metaphorical, then is the audience of Jesus’ words for Paul’s purposes in fact a heavenly audience? Angels or other beings in the heavenly realm (a la 4 above?)? And if it not a heavenly audience, then the process of euhemerization has already occurred, and Paul has already bought into it, despite the fact that such a concoction would undermine his claims to authority?

            I’m having kind of a hard time following your argument, unless you are simply saying that we cannot make any assessments of the evidence, which simply seems overly nihilistic to me.

          • I’m not sure what problem it is that you are seeing. I think that the gospels are full of stories about Jesus that someone invented and I suspect that the people who invented them often convinced themselves that God was revealing things to them that either really happened or reflected the truth about Jesus. So I think that Paul may have believed it really happened even though he actually invented it and I think he expected that the Corinthians would believe it was something that really happened. Since the point of the revelation was to instruct the whole church, I don’t think it mattered to Paul who was actually there to hear it.

            Paul was writing to people who already believed that he got revelations from God and that the risen Christ had appeared to him. He was also writing to people who believed that God communicated with them through words of wisdom, words of knowledge, and interpretation of tongues. I just don’t see that they would get hung up trying to parse what Paul told them in the way that you seem to be doing.

          • Paul E.

            I don’t see really see a “problem” with what Paul is saying, nor am I getting “hung up” on it or trying to “parse” it. I read it, put it in context and assess what I think he meant. And I think Paul’s audience would have had even less of a “problem” than I’m having.

            What I am trying to get to is what _you_ are hypothesizing he meant. You stated something absolutist about the evidence, i.e. that there is “nothing” in Paul that even “suggests” that Jesus had pre-crucifixion/resurrection followers. James replied by saying that could only be the case if you rejected the mainstream interpretation of 1 Cor. 11. Your response was something to the effect of that you can’t be “sure” that’s what Paul meant and maybe it meant something else. Ok, I agree we can’t be sure. So how does that get to such an absolutist position on the evidence that 1 Cor. 11 cannot be interpreted, as it is by mainstream scholars, to even suggest pre-crucifixion/resurrection followers? And if that mainstream interpretation must, in your view, be rejected, then what is the replacement hypothesis? That’s what I’m trying to understand.

            Alternative explanations would be interesting with respect to this chapter because I find it odd that Paul would have resorted to claiming revelation in this context where it would seem that appeal to tradition of a well-known event would perhaps be more expected.

          • Paul E.

            So, getting to the meat of your response, it looks to me like your hypothesis is basically something like the hybrid position I suggested? I.e., Paul made up the story of a “last supper” to explain why the Christians practiced a ritual that was pre-existent to Paul’s explanation of it (or practiced because Paul had previously made it up to begin the ritual), understanding that the Corinthians would think that his explanation was an actual event. So the Corinthians would then have believed either 1) there was no audience for Jesus’ words at this supper, or 2) there was an audience but it was not an audience of followers, or 3) there was an audience and it was followers (in which case there is a suggestion in Paul that there were pre-crucifixion/resurrection followers), or 4) this all happened in the heavens so any possible audience would be heavenly beings? Am I getting closer to your position?

          • Is it the mainstream consensus that Jesus really spoke those words at the Last Supper? I thought that many scholars believed it to be a later formulation created by the church.

            My hypothesis is that Paul truly believed that Jesus said those words on the night before he was handed over. I think it completely plausible that it was a tradition Paul had received from his predecessors, but since he says he received it from the Lord, I think I have to allow for the possibility that he came up with it and attributed it to divine revelation.

            I don’t know who Paul thought was present when Jesus spoke those words because Paul doesn’t say. Since Paul never talks about Jesus having followers or disciples or even an earthly ministry, I don’t think I can assume that that is who he thought was there. Since I think it possible that Paul viewed this as something directly revealed to him, I think it possible that he didn’t consider who was there to be part of his revelation.

            I tend to think that Paul believed that this was an event that took place on earth rather than on a heavenly plane, but I’m not sure that he says anything that speaks directly to the point. I don’t see any reason to think that Paul thought he knew anyone personally who had been there.

            There are two other passages in 1 Corinthians that are commonly cited as proof that Paul knew the teachings of the earthly Jesus; 7:10-12 and 9:13-14. While I tend to think Paul considers these to be revelations of the risen Christ rather than traditions about the earthly Jesus, even if it is the latter, who was present when Jesus taught these things doesn’t seem to be relevant to the point that Paul is making. As a result, I don’t think there is any basis to draw any inferences about what Paul or his readers thought about it. I can’t see much more reason to speculate about who Paul thought was present when Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

          • Paul E.

            Hmm, not sure how to respond. First, let’s set aside the issue of whether the conclusion that 1 Cor. 11 at least suggests that Jesus had pre-crucifixion/resurrection followers is mainstream (as James suggests it is). It is at least James’ conclusion, apparently.

            Second, and certainly, we have to allow for all sorts of possibilities. Sure, we do not know for certain who the specific people in the “audience” for those words were, or if Paul knew them, or whether they were spoken in exactly that manner, or words to the effect, or not at all, or whatever. Of course.

            But even if you want to throw out the gospels as evidence, we still have evidence: Paul’s words. Even you apparently acknowledge Paul’s words attributed to Jesus suggest a chronology and an audience. The words are instructional such that “followers” as the audience is at least one possibility (one certainly need not “assume” that’s who it was, of course), and you acknowledge the possibility that it was tradition received by Paul mundanely in addition to by revelation (and the fact that the tradition pre-existed 1 Cor. is additional, if slight, evidence to that effect).

            I simply do not see how you get from this to the absolutist evidentiary conclusion that there is “nothing” in Paul to even “suggest” pre-crucifixion/resurrection followers. You cannot merely say there are other possible interpretations, you must say James’ suggested interpretation, as I have hopefully correctly paraphrased it (whether mainstream or not), is definitively precluded. Regardless, we have probably mined this for about all it’s worth. 🙂

          • I will be happy to modify my statement to “Paul never speaks to the point of whether Jesus had followers” rather than “nothing in Paul suggests,” and I will try to use that formulation in the future. I agree that the latter formulation could be read as precluding reasonable inferences about what Paul knew or thought, which goes farther than I can justify.

            In my defense, I would say that properly qualifying statements while remaining readable can be difficult as well as time consuming. Moreover, I find that pithy statements are often more likely to elicit a response than wordy ones, so I tend to err on the side of the former.

          • Paul E.

            Your post is suspiciously reasonable and gracious for the internet. I am tempted to demand its immediate retraction…

          • Apparently, you do not recognize withering sarcasm when you see it.

            Actually, I like to experiment with civility from time to time in order to reassure myself of its futility. Then I can go back to being a smart ass with a clear conscience. See response to Mark infra (or supra depending on how you have comments sorted).

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I tend to think that Paul believed that this was an event that took place on earth rather than on a heavenly plane, but I’m not sure that he says anything that speaks directly to the point.

            This is the crux of the matter. A mythicist might concede that Jesus was believed to have lived and died on Earth, while still maintaining that “knowledge” of these things came through revelation rather than first-hand experience. Carrier seems to allow for this possibility in his discussion of what he calls “revelatory docetism” (always best to keep your options open!).

            Revelatory docetism would have the advantage of dealing with such inconvenient evidence as Jesus’ Davidic descent, but at a price. If the original myth centred on an Earthly crucifixion, we must wonder at the motive of the myth’s creators. It is not as if there was a shortage of real crucifixions at the time.

          • My guess would be that the motive was cognitive dissonance reduction. I’m sure that there were many devout Jews fervently praying for God to send a champion to liberate his people from the Roman yoke who were plunged into the depths of despair each time a potential challenger was crushed. Any one of them might have found some comfort in the notion that everything was going according to God’s plan and that the suffering of his anointed one was the necessary prelude to the final vindication of his people. I think it perfectly plausible that the follower of a specific failed messianic came up with the idea, but I also think it plausible that someone who hadn’t been the follower of anyone specific came up with the idea.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I think cognitive dissonance would be far more attributable to the followers of a real Jesus, but there seems to be a more serious problem. If you are going to invoke the idea that the death of Jesus was known through revelation, there is a kind of logic in transferring the scene of the death to the heavens, whence revelations normally emanate. But it seems very odd to have information about an event on Earth being conveyed by revelation. Again, I am struck by the sheer superfluousness of the idea. Why not just accept that there actually was a death?

          • Let me posit a scenario Cecil: A charismatic but slightly deranged individual claims to be the recipient of divine visions and revelations. He makes up a series of fantastic stories from whole cloth which he claims contain the keys to the mysteries of life. He convinces a group of gullible followers that his stories and visions are true. It may be a mundane scenario, but I think the historical precedent for religions starting this way is pretty good.

            I think that mythicism remains a viable possibility to me because at its core, it posits that Christianity began the same pedestrian way that other religions did: someone invented some crazy crap and convinced others that it was true. I think that historicist explanations often seem more intuitively plausible simply because they contain so many elements of the traditional accounts with which we are so familiar. When it comes right down to it though, I’m not sure that an actual person who died isn’t largely superfluous to Paul’s understanding of a supernatural risen Christ, and I’m fairly sure that logical coherence is largely superfluous to revelation claims.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Well Vinny, I think it may be possible to flesh out your scenario as follows:

            Cephas was a solitary man who spent many years searching the scriptures for God’s truth. One day he realised that it must be God’s plan for the Christ to die. At that moment, a radiant figure appeared to him; it was the Christ. He confirmed that Cephas had unlocked the secret of the ages. It was necessary for the Christ to die, but now he was risen. All this had happened in a realm unseen by men.

            Cephas shared this news with many and when he did this others began to see the risen Christ as well. When I first heard about this, I thought these people were a bunch of nut-jobs but then I saw the Risen One myself, and the rest, as they say, is history. (3 Corinthians 5:10-15).

            We can certainly speculate about such scenarios, but I would personally like to see the evidence. If Christianity began with a charismatic figure, the question is which figure. If it wasn’t Jesus, we might assume that Paul had the necessary qualities. But we know that the movement began before Paul’s involvement. This leaves Cephas (as in the above scenario), but there is really no hint that he could have played that role.

          • I’m not quite sure that your methodology is valid. You took an idea with which you disagreed and fleshed it out with details for which you had no evidence. Then you rejected the original idea because there was no evidence for the details that you added.

            It is true that there was a movement before Paul came along, but I think that it is impossible to say much about what it looked like because the only thing Paul really tells us is that there were some guys who believed that they had witnessed appearances of a crucified guy who had come back from the dead. Paul never tells us what meaning those guys attached to the death of the crucified guy, or to his resurrection, or to the appearances that they experienced. Paul tells us he was opposed to those guys, but never says what it was about their beliefs or practices that so offended him.

            Because Paul never tells us, I don’t think there is any way to determine how much of what we find in Paul’s letters was there in the movement before he joined it. Might it not have been Paul who was entirely responsible for working out the theological and eschatological meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection? I don’t think we can be sure either way, but I tend to think that it makes sense to treat Paul as the originator of Christianity for all practical purposes simply because he is our earliest source and he doesn’t give us enough information to get back to any earlier form of the movement.

            It may be true that there is no hint in the evidence that the movement originated with Cephas, but I wouldn’t make too much of that. In some Mormon histories, you won’t find a hint that Joseph Smith had more than one wife since polygamy wasn’t practiced openly before the Mormons reached Salt Lake City. I don’t think that we can rely on the stories that a religion tells about its own origins to contain anything besides the official party line. If (and I know this is an “if”) your fleshed out scenario about Cephas is consistent what we know about how religions generally start, I don’t think we can eliminate it as a possibility just because the religion itself did not preserve any record of it.

          • Mark

            Where is the evidence that Paul thinks he or anyone is starting a ‘new religion’? To interpret him this way is just to buy into later ecclesiastical conceptions.

          • Mark

            That is, it is a faith proposition.

          • No, it’s not. It’s nothing of the kind.

          • Mark

            You can’t know this by introspection. We have a definite ‘religion’ in e.g. 3rd century Christianity. The claim that it is the same as what Paul was preaching is a part of that religion, and cannot otherwise be justified.

          • I am unaware of any evidence that anybody thought they were starting a “new” religion. I think Paul thought of his revelation as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but not a different religion. That doesn’t change the fact that Christianity eventually became separate from Judaism and that Paul is our earliest source for the ideas that came to constitute the distinct movement. It is a matter of recognizing where the split began, not buying into later ecclesiastical conceptions.

          • Mark

            Only the later movement will deny the proposition: if we are trying to interpret Paul we must take no interest in any later movement. You didn’t think it was a faith proposition when you accepted it, but it is, and you accept it.

          • Mark

            The theory that the 2nd c. ‘church’ was a normal gentile cult with no causal dependence on Paul, but which decided to adopt Paul’s letters (the detritus of a failed 1st c. Jewish messianism’s gentile auxiliary formation) as part of its self-understanding, is at least as ‘plausible’ and rational as ‘mythicism’. On that account, though, it would be straightforwardly false that “Christianity” sprang from or split from 2nd temple religion; it would be assigned a completely different origin. You think the world should know that you have come so close to the paranoia of Descartes as to entertain the possibility that various mythicist ideas are ‘plausible’, but then inexplicably exit your meditations in order to rule out the other possibility, and simply assert it as a ‘fact’ (your word) that ‘Christianity’ separated from ‘Judaism’.

            Your unstated premise that the system we know as Judaism (i.e. the complex religious-ethnic ideology developed by the rabbinical movement in the late 2nd – 6th centuries) is unproblematically identical with anything belonging to the cult of the 2nd temple (and thus with anything known to Paul) is totally groundless. The originality of the rabbis was at least as far reaching as that of the church fathers, for the simple reason the destruction of the temple and finally of Judea was at least as profound a crisis as the failure of the parousia. Thus for example S. Schwartz argues that there is almost no evidence outside the Mishnah (c. 180) that the laws of Moses were practiced by anyone in 2nd c. Palestine; people with ‘Jewish sounding’ names were reading Epicurus and indifferently naming their children Adonis or Yonatan as the spirit moved (there is an element of irritable contrariness in Schwartz’ claims, clearly; no doubt it would suit you). If you want a really good example of the resurrection of the dead and ‘making dry bones live,’ the obviously miraculous rabbinical resurrection of the Jewish ethnos will do… The position of e.g. Boyarin is that as soon as “Christianity” and “Judaism” can be unproblematically identified, they are opposed, and thus it is false to say that either grew out of the other; rather, both arise from the ashes of the cult of the 2nd temple.

          • I haven’t ruled out any possibility.

          • Mark

            Right, that’s what Descartes says. It belongs to a different enquiry, not to the interpretation of 2nd temple data like the letters of Paul.

          • Descartes says that I haven’t ruled out any possibility?

          • Mark

            In cartesianism, each must affirm that he himself has not ruled out any possibility. It’s open for speculation whether Descartes or VinnyJH exists, even if the meditator is Descartes or VinnyJH. If you carry your program through you will say, e.g. “Maybe VinnyJH doesn’t exist, I can’t rule it out; but still, *I* exist”

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            You can regard Paul as the originator of Christianity if you think that it began with his attribution of a certain theological significance to the death and resurrection of Jesus. As long as you don’t use Paul’s alleged status as the originator of Christianity as an argument against the historicity of Jesus, I don’t see a problem, although many would question how much of a role Paul played in shaping the theology of the movement.

            Paul certainly seems to be the sort of charismatic figure who might be capable of starting a new religion, but that has no relevance to the discussion. There is no evidence to suggest that a particular person “invented” Jesus. If we were going to speculate about it, we might imagine that the inventor was Cephas, but again, there is no evidence.

          • Cecil,

            Let’s suppose that it could be shown that in every case where the origins of a religious movement can be documented with contemporaneous sources from outside the religion, a key factor has been some delusional nut job inventing wild stories.

            Would I be justified in thinking that was probably some delusional nut job inventing wild stories who was a key factor in the origin of Christianity?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Well Vinny, I’m not sure how delusional you would like Paul to be. Perhaps Cephas and the Jerusalem crowd were a figment of his imagination.

          • Mark

            If the net of delusional-nut-job-hood is cast so widely, then every informant Josephus can have used in recounting the Jewish war was a delusional nut job — chief among them Josephus himself who insists that he prophetically identified Vespasian as the true messiah. Paul (and presumably ‘Cephas’) are quite ordinary adherents of the religion of 1st c. Jerusalem; if anything they are more level headed than the next generation showed itself to be.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Yes, this has become a bit too surreal for someone of my limited imagination.

          • That doesn’t answer my question.

          • Mark

            VinnyJH, I take it that the identification of ‘wild stories’ is part of your procedure for identifying whatever it is you’re calling ‘religion’. Where is the argument that the category “religion” isn’t yet another arbitrary abstraction you are using to avoid the labor of interpreting Paul’s letters? The ‘wild stories’ Paul has accepted were devised by the prophets and the accompanying tradition; Paul (and ‘Cephas’ and co.) are basically doing nothing but bringing recent events under them; this involves a far more constrained operation of the faculty of wild-story production, leaving most of it to the accumulated tradition of prophecy.

          • Mark

            In the case of the Paul/Cephas/etc business, the ‘delusional nut jobs’ you are looking for will be the prophets. The ‘religion’ or ‘religious movement’ Paul and Cephas and so on are following is the (opaque, multifarious) messianic trend in 2nd temple religion. Ezekiel can act as the poster child of prophetic ‘delusional nut jobbery’ So even if your proposition about the origins of every religion were true, it needn’t be Paul or Cephas who inhabits the requisite role of delusional nut-job.

          • Mark

            Isn’t it pretty clear that Paul is anticipating a fairly ordinary messianic arrival in his ‘parousia’? What you are finding plausible, then, is that he is prophetically anticipating the real-world appearance of messiah who will be exactly as if he had already failed, but only in the heavens. Of course, we don’t have any examples of this kind of idea, so the prior is 0, whereas messiahs in occultation are a dime a dozen in the ‘abrahamic’ religions.

          • I’m sorry Mark, but I find the idea of distinguishing “fairly ordinary” messianic arrivals from unusual messianic arrivals rather silly. When weighing competing historical explanations, I cannot imagine such distinctions tilting the balance either way.

          • Mark

            I don’t distinguish them either.

          • Then what possible basis can you have for asserting that Paul expected one that was “fairly ordinary”?

          • Mark

            I was saying: Paul expects his Jesus to show up in the flesh, and rule real human beings. This is what he calls ‘parousia’. All messianism contains this idea.

          • Mark

            I would like to inform the world that I have achieved the inner mental state of ‘finding it perfectly plausible’ that Paul is addressing himself to a heavenly Corinth, which was later vulgarly euhemerized by unspiritual readers as referring to the coarse, rat-ridden ‘real’ Corinth. Paul doesn’t show any signs of knowing anything about the actual history of Corinth, he only refers to an ekklesia tou theou, the divine council, in Corinth, which would seem refer to an angelic assembly; at all events, he never ‘speaks to the question’ of whether it is a heavenly or terrestrial Corinth he is addressing himself to; and let’s face it, there can hardly have been an assembly of angels, a God-council, in the ‘real’ Corinth… Since Paul gets all this stuff from ‘revelation’ there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to think that he is referring to any Corinth that is given by the coarse fleshly outward senses.

            Since I am in this mental state of ‘finding it perfectly plausible’ that this is the case, obviously, it follows that it could really be the case, and historical affirmations that rule it out are thereby shown to be unjustified and ideology-driven and quite legitimately trolled.

          • Mark

            > I can’t see much more reason to speculate about who Paul thought was present when Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

            Isn’t it reasonable to speculate that Paul thinks that Jesus thinks that those present would be in a position to “remember” him, and that they will be in a position somehow to ‘do this’ again, and that when they do it again, they, at least, will be remembering him? Paul has at least to be representing what he ‘has from’ Jesus as true.

            I don’t follow this business about using the formula ‘X spoke to/didn’t speak to the point of whether p’. I don’t think it’s quite grammatical really. But if someone says ‘My mother’s left hand had a scar on it’, do they ‘speak to the point of whether’ their mother had a left hand, or ‘to the point of whether’ they had a mother? Does every sentence using the first person ‘speak to the point of whether’ the speaker ‘exists’? I’m not sure, but it seems to me the answer should be no in all these cases. In which case the claim will reduce to “No greek sentence in the letters is aptly translated either by p or by not-p?” That means you will correct any speaker who departs from direct quotation … So it’s totally opaque what you mean.

          • Mark

            Even, supposing that the gospels are full of fiction, this doesn’t have any bearing at all on the interpretation of what Paul wrote decades earlier. It is a faith proposition to think otherwise. To think that they stand or fall together, or that if you find invention in the one, this gives you even the slightest reason even to suspect it in the others, is to argue on the basis of the unity of a corpus that will not be united for another 200 years by people in a different time and place, who practiced a different religion. Paul’s letters would have exactly the same sentences even if no one had ever written the gospels.

          • I fear that I exhausted my reservoir of graciousness and reasonableness on my last response to Paul E.

            Go fish.

          • Mark

            Sorry, I don’t follow this.

          • It means that I didn’t find anything in your last comment worthy of a response.

          • Mark

            Oh, fine then.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I find it perpetually interesting that Paul distinguishes between commands that he received from the Lord and those which he did not (cf. 1 Cor. 7:10-12). Minimally this suggests that Paul was not given to attributing everything that he thought and said to the Lord. Admittedly this does not rule out revelations delivered through ecstatic experience, Paul’s or others’, but I’m also not sure if ecstatic experience makes best sense of what Paul says in 11:23. If he learned through ecstatic experience that these were the proper words to use during Eucharist then why make any effort to connect it with Jesus’s words at the last supper? Why not simply say “The Lord told me to tell you to use the following words.” The use of παραλαμβάνω (“receive”: very frequently used when talking about the transmission of tradition) combined with the appeal to a specific event in Jesus’s life seems most naturally to suggest that Paul understood that the Eucharistic words really were instituted by Jesus at the last supper and passed on by those who were present at that event. When it comes to exegesis the only real test that we have is to consider which reading makes the writer’s words most intelligible, and it seems to me that a Paul who thought that he got the Eucharistic words by revelation is somewhat less intelligible than a Paul who thought that he got these by human transmission.

            Now, whether Paul is correct on this matter, that’s an altogether different issue.

          • I think I might agree that the passage may be somewhat more intelligible on the premise that Paul understood the Eucharistic words to have been passed on by people who were there to hear them. However, I think the entirety of the Pauline corpus is less intelligible on that premise. If Paul believed that among his opponents were some who could claim to have been taught directly by the earthly Jesus, I think he would have been compelled to confront that head on. I find the entirety of Paul’s writings to be somewhat more intelligible on the premise that no one could claim anything other than revelation as a source.

          • Then I think you have not considered the fact that they are letters, and they tell us very little that supposedly was revealed in visions, and not just very little that was handed on by other means.

          • If that is what you think, you are incorrect. I have considered the fact that they are letters. That has simply never seemed to me to actually explain anything. Even in letters, there are countless reasons Paul might have had to touch upon the meaning of something Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry or to touch upon the fact that Jesus had an earthly ministry. That the earthly Jesus was not known to be a teacher or known not to be a teacher strikes me as a much simpler explanation for the absence of such references than that all of Jesus’ teachings were so well known that Paul could just take for granted his readers’ knowledge of whatever Jesus said that might be relevant to whatever point Paul was making.

            I do not think that this is necessarily evidence that a historical Jesus did not exist. Rather, it may just mean that he was much different than the picture we have in the gospels. For example, he could have been the leader of a rebellion, rather than an apocalyptic prophet, whose followers dealt with their despair by inventing the idea of a crucified messiah. It may simply be that the practice of attributing spiritual teachings to the earthly Jesus hadn’t taken hold at the time Paul was writing.

          • Mark

            The principal thing Paul seems to have got from direct contact with his ruler is commands, imperatives. They are not in the first instance truths and assertions, whether esoteric or pedestrian in character. In everything he says he represents himself as acting under orders like a state or military or diplomatic officer. And he doesn’t think of this as a mere metaphor or analogy.

            It happens that his particular role, _what he was commanded to do_, is to carry an official proclamation to the cities of the world and to organize the people who manage to ‘get the message’. The proclamation (gospel) contains some propositions, assertions or truths about Jesus, e.g that was born, died, etc. This, I think, is the source of your confusion.

            But there is no reason to think that Paul himself only knows the truth of propositions he is under orders to impart, merely from having been ordered to purvey them. A person can be ordered to proclaim things he or she already knows. There will be an impediment, though, to departing from the script and arbitrarily padding what you have been given to say with assertions you know from other sources. This is in the nature of diplomacy or military discipline or bureaucratic functioning – and these provide the conceptual structure Paul represents and understands as governing his teaching. This is what he is saying in the business about competing ‘gospels’ in Galations 1

            He doesn’t mostly represent himself as having a special source of knowledge, but as acting as an official of a rather special sort of organization, the kingdom-in-waiting. Even if he has a special source of knowledge through which he knows that e.g. “Spain is ripe for the taking”, he cannot insert this in his “gospel.” We could explain most of what you think he is ‘getting from revelation’ by supposing he thinks Jesus said to him:” I am making you an emissary to the nations; preach the gospel to them as well,” where “the gospel” is taken to refer to what Cephas & co. are already preaching, though only or mostly to fellow Jews. That can’t be the whole story as he understands it, because of the peculiarity that he is preaching/proclaiming to the unwashed. But the idea that he represents himself as seer or visionary with a source of knowledge of arbitrary esoteric truths seems to be groundless. If anything, he is everywhere saying the opposite; he is not a seer but a functionary … and drill-sargeant. (He’s pretty clearly a seer of some sort too of course, but presumably in the way his gentiles are seers, prophets, etc.)

          • The point is that there is just as little said about a supposedly celestial Jesus as about a terrestrial one. Celestial figures have stories, just as real life humans do. Paul gives sparse information, whichever you think he is talking about. And so it is dishonest to claim that alleged lack of detail on Paul’s part fits mythicism better than what scholars conclude.

          • Celestial figures don’t have stories until someone invents them

          • Obviously. And until someone does that, they cannot proclaim those myths about the celestial being in question as content of a belief system. Do you find such content adequate to the task in Paul’s letters, and if not, why do you think that might be?

          • My point is that at the time Paul was writing, there was supposedly a vibrant oral tradition comprised of the events and teachings of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Remembering and contemplating the meaning of these teachings and events was supposedly a vital part of the movement’s worship and practice. I would expect that any time there was a controversy, one side or both would invoke some story or teaching of the earthly Jesus in support of their position. I would expect that some people would even have tried to bolster their position by inventing things that Jesus said. As Paul’s letters concerned important issues and controversies in his congregation, I can imagine lots of ways these practices might be reflected in Paul’s letters.

            As I said above, I believe that the absence of references to Jesus’ earthly ministry is explained just as well by a historical Jesus whose activities were much different than those described in the gospels as by a celestial Jesus. Between a celestial Jesus and the historical Jesus of the gospels, I’m not nearly so certain and I don’t see anything dishonest about my uncertainty.

          • Paul E.

            If you were arguing something like Vinny’s position and trying to make an evidentiary case based on an argument from silence, would you think part of the methodology would have to be to try to confirm a very high Christological position for Paul – something beyond pre-existence as an angel/divine figure or logos to a position more like either a personal awareness/claim on Jesus’ part of being God-Christ or at least a fairly immediate acceptance of that position near Paul’s time? Otherwise, wouldn’t a generalized argument from silence be undermined by Paul’s specific arguments in appealing to things revealed to him by Christ, either as a “new” teaching (e.g., Gal. 1) or confirming/explaining a theological aspect of what appears to be a pre-existent tradition (e.g., 1 Cor. 11)?

          • I think that the argument from silence is, as Vinny seems to admit, one that doesn’t work in favor of mythicism rather than mainstream scholarship. It doesn’t help the latter, either – the things Paul says and doesn’t say are simply the data we are dealing with.

            And of course, the reason mythicism is implausible is because of what Paul does actually say.

          • No. I don’t think that the argument works in favor of mythicism rather than some minimal historical Jesus, but I know of few mainstream scholars who are arguing for that.

          • No mainstream scholar argues for that. But mythicism is not about arguing something that mainstream scholars argue for or find persuasive, as you know.

          • Sorry. I garbled that. What I.meant to write was

            No. I think that the argument works in favor of some minimal historical Jesus, rather than (or as much as) a celestial Jesus. but I know of few mainstream scholars who are arguing for that kind of a historical Jesus.

          • Lots of scholars have, at least since Bultmann’s time if not before. But I suppose it depends on just how minimal your “minimal” is. In Bultmann’s famous words, “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist. Except for the purely critical research, what has been written in the last hundred and fifty years on the life of Jesus, his personality and the development of his inner life, is fantastic and romantic. ”

          • Paul E.

            Isn’t the problem that scholars who build on the minimal Jesus are actually arguing for it, but simply then arguing for something more on top of that?

          • Logically, that could be, but the minimal Jesus I have in mind is a minimalist Jesus as well. The Bultmann quote seems to capture it pretty well. That minimal Jesus isn’t buildable because the sources are so problematic.

            Of course I wouldn expect to find too many scholars arguing for an unbuildable Jesus simply because most scholars who reached such a conclusion would likely want to find something to study that held more potential.

          • Paul E.

            I gotcha.

          • Paul E.

            I guess my thought was whether based on specific things Paul did in fact say whether we could make an evidentiary argument (whether one way or the other) because of how we might be able to extend what he did say to areas where we may expect he might say something but didn’t. My thinking was that any such expectation would have to be based on inferring a hierarchy of importance to teachings depending on topic and depending on whether the teaching came from an earthly or risen Jesus. As I consider it, my post wasn’t well thought-out. I will think about it and see if I actually have a point or not!

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Vinny, is your argument that when Paul was writing there hadn’t been enough time to invent any stories about a celestial Jesus ? This seems to raise difficulties. Mark’s Gospel pops up just ten to twenty years after Paul was writing, and it contains plenty of stories. Furthermore, those stories are set on Earth. It seems that two crucial stages in the evolution of the Jesus “myth” are missing. First you would expect stories about a celestial Jesus to develop and circulate, and then later you might expect the stories to be transferred to Earth.

            If the myth theory is designed to explain Paul’s silence about an Earthly Jesus, it seems that the cure is worse than the disease.

          • I would call it a hypothesis rather than an argument.

            My hypothesis is that Paul didn’t think of the earthly Jesus as being a teacher. In fact, he didn’t think about the earthly Jesus much at all. To Paul, all that mattered was the meaning of his death and resurrection. That meaning was derived from revelation and the study of scripture rather than by examining Jesus’ life and teaching.

            I think that my hypothesis is consistent with a purely celestial Jesus, but I think it is equally consistent with a historical Jesus who simply wasn’t a moral teacher, e.g., an insurrectionist.

            While Paul may have been satisfied talking about the risen Christ, others had more interest in the earthly Jesus. I think that it would have been the most natural thing in the world to invent pious fictions about the life of Jesus in much the same way that Parson Weems invented the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It would have been equally natural to ascribe moral teachings to Jesus.

            While I don’t doubt that such stories and teachings would have started arising very early, my hypothesis would be that there was no authoritative collection at the time Paul was writing. It took some time before the stories were compiled into a written narrative and even longer before the narratives circulated widely and became accepted as authoritative accounts.

            While I think that my hypothesis probably points more towards some minimal historical person rather than a purely celestial one, I don’t think it does so decisively. I think our sources are too problematic and we lack too many pieces of the puzzle to be overly confident.

          • Mark

            You can’t seem to get the gospels and their alleged epistemological difficulties out of your head while discussing Paul. The interpretation of Paul’s text would be perfectly clear even if the gospels had never been written and Jesus-messianism had vanished along with the second temple.

          • Mark

            It would be odd to characterize Sabbatai as an ‘insurrectionist,’ nevertheless everyone thought that Constantinople would fall as he and his entourage approached the city chanting psalms. After that (mangling details slightly) all the Jews everywhere would be ‘caught up in the air’ and transported to Jerusalem. An atemporal mythicist Sabbatai would make nonsense of these merely extravagant pious thoughts.

          • Mark

            It does seem likely that ‘the practice of attributing spiritual teachings to the earthly Jesus hadn’t taken hold’ (in writing anyway.) But why would imperial ministers and emissaries, acting as such, hold forth about the wisdoms their emperor/Christ/etc. taught before he was emperor/Christ/etc., except insofar as they are instructed to? Their business is to do with his present commandments and rule not with e.g. what he told his sister in the third grade. I do not obey Vespasian by finding out his pre-imperial maxims, e.g. the ones he pronounced to his troops in war, and taking them to heart.

            The ‘teaching of Jesus’ in the later gospels and any precursors they had may or may not correspond to reality, but even if Paul is aware of it, he has no right to use it at random — particularly since, if the Gospel accounts have a solid core, Paul would have reason _not_ to use the material, since so much of it is addressed to fellow Jews as Jews. Even if he had a copy of Q, and busied himself, as a Jew, keeping his thoughts in line with it, he would still need to know what was to be directed to non-proselyte ex-pagans in Asia Minor. This would be a very grave editorial problem even if Paul had a transcript of all of Jesus’ conversations.

          • Mark

            I didn’t say they were followers (‘the 12’ and the ‘500 brothers’) before the crucifixion, though of course he thinks that. Unless the 12 and the 500, or some among them, are introduced precisely as *reidentifying* Jesus before and after the crucifixion and burial, the passage makes no sense at all.

            The purpose of 1 Cor 15 : 4 – 6 is to provide raw materials for the physical resurrection of dead people generally, which is what he is arguing for in 1 Cor 15 : 12-19 – i.e. the standard ‘pharisaical’ doctrine of the resurrection of dead – i.e. formerly living, historical, human beings. He needs people who can attest to the phenomenon anticipated in the standard Jewish religion of the period, as standardly understood. 1 Cor 15 : 8, where he mentions that he saw Jesus too, is not relevant to the argument he is making in 1 Cor 15. That Paul saw the ‘risen’ Jesus is not given as attesting the resurrection, but is mentioned in passing; it may be the same with James and the ‘apostles’ . Paul is in any case treated as differing from the others.

            The passage makes no sense, then, unless some at least of ‘the 12’ and ‘the 500 brothers’ spoken of had seen Jesus before and were aware of the crucifixion. They attest to the structure: Now you seem him – Now you don’t – Now you see him again. The dead soldiers of the Maccabean period are in the “Now you don’t” phase, but don’t worry; they’re coming back.

            Of course this will have zero force for a convinced “mythicist,” but they think that Paul thinks that the Roman Empire crucifies people in the heavens so it’s a little difficult to figure out what epistemic order of propositions to adopt with them.

          • I would think that Paul viewed the revelations and appearances of the risen Christ as self-authenticating. He certainly didn’t seem to think that his own experience required any confirmation from anyone who had known the earthly Jesus. Rather, he says that his apostleship derives from seeing the risen Christ.

          • Mark

            The purpose of mentioning appearances involving many people at once is precisely to show that the object is given to the external senses. The purpose of mentioning individuals (Cephas and James) is that they are Notable. The purpose of mentioning himself is outside the argument of the passage itself: it is an occasion for a bit of humblebrag. The representation by ὤφθη is uniform throughout, and that sometimes Jesus ὤφθη many people at once is part of what shows that we have to do with a body making a dent on the senses. No mystical apokalupsis is under discussion, and the passage would have no point if the 500 had all been bent over with their eyes closed praying during Rosh Hashanah – as the Baal Shem Tov was doing when, according to a famous letter, he met the messiah and asked him “When are you coming, sir?” The Baal Shem Tov’s experience was perfectly self-‘authenticating’ (as what it was); the *whole* point of this passage is that it wasn’t like that. He would have to be saying that many apokalupseis happened in stereo, so to speak, and would lose his actual point.

            Many saw him together with others before the crucifixion, and many of them saw him together with others after the crucifixion, and they saw that he was the same. That’s the proposition he wants to affirm before proceeding with his argument.

            If he is speaking sincerely here, the natural naturalistic inference is that before this ‘experience,’ Paul already knew that the followers claimed to have seen Jesus *with their outward senses*, en masse. He then suffers some ‘religious experience’ which he then construes on *that model*. Thus he comes to believe that the ekklesia he was persecuting was not a bunch of frauds, but that they really saw him. Later it seems he has experiences (‘whether in or out of the body’) that he understands along standard Jewish-mystical lines.

            Paul might have made that a little clearer, but unfortunately the possibility of a permanently ‘mythicist’ messiah has never crossed his mind, for the simple reason that no such messiah has ever crossed anyone’s mind.

            As far as I can see a ‘self-authenticating’ mythicist resurrection experience would have to last three days. Otherwise it would have to be a vision of someone claiming to be resurrected. The claim is not that many have heard from Jesus in heaven that he has died in heaven and come back to life in heaven. None of these people are represented as having been told anything in these experiences.

          • If Paul’s purpose was to establish that the appearances were objects of the physical senses, he could have provided the kinds of details that the gospels did, e.g., physical contact, eating. That he didn’t might indicate that there were a range of appearance claims from dreams and visions to claims of actual physical contact.

            However, even if Jesus was historical, the usual Roman practice would have been to crucify as many of his followers as they could grab. I think we have to allow for the possibility that the appearances were first claimed by people who weren’t his followers during his life or who were on the very fringes of his movement.

          • What is your evidence regarding the “usual Roman practice” when dealing with movements such as that centered around Jesus?

          • Interesting question. How do we establish what type of a movement that was? Are we justified in concluding that it belongs in some other category than those to which the Romans responded by mass repression and retaliation?

          • And might it not make more sense to begin with the evidence that Jesus was executed but not his inner circle of followers, and then compare that to other instances of Roman executions (assuming you have such data), and see what can be deduced from that about the character of the movement?

          • We can start with the gospels stories, but how do we assess the probability that particular elements are true other than by comparing them to what we know about the time generally? If we know generally that Romans left the bodies of crucifixion victims on their crosses to rot, we have to take that into account when assessing a story of an honorable burial. If we know that the Romans generally cast a broad net when dealing with political revolutionaries (which of course would need to be established), we have to take that into account when evaluating a story about a messianic claimant whose followers were unmolested. Don’t we evaluate all New Testament stories based on our general knowledge of Roman and Jewish practices of the day?

            It’s the issue of prior probabilities raising its ugly head again. Of course, Jesus might be the exception to all sorts of generally observed patterns, but the historian can only determine what probably happened.

          • Do we have evidence that that is what the Romans generally did in Jewish Palestine? Josephus provides evidence that the Jews made sure to bury even victims of crucifixion before sundown on the day they died in keeping with the Jewish law.

          • Paul E.

            It seems also a very strong piece of evidence that there is such an early tradition of Jesus’ burial in Paul.

          • I thought the consensus was still that honorable burial was by far the exception rather than the rule, but if it’s not, that would certainly affect the assessment of the prior.

          • I was talking about burial, not honorable burial. I don’t think executed criminals, as a rule, received the latter. But Jews were required to bury even those who were impaled or hung and thus intentionally dishonored in or after death.

          • Then you were talking about something different than what I was talking about since I specified an honorable burial. However, it doesn’t really affect my point about evaluating gospel stories in the light of what is generally known about first century Roman and Jewish practices.

          • Mark

            I have no view about the origin of the resurrection stories, I assume a sensible account can be given, of course. An interpretation of 1 Cor 15: 1-11 must show how it prepares the hearer for the argument of 1 Cor 15: 11 – 58. There it emerges that some people do not anticipate a resurrection of the dead in the usual pharisaical sense. The chapter as a whole is organized around the refutation of this obscure ‘heresy’. Against them the wrong-believers, he is saying, no: when you buried your grandmother you merely planted the seed, she will be raised etc. He gives many arguments in favor of the pharisaical position (and many remarks that develop the glorified, transformed, nature of the resurrected people). Stereophonic Jesus ‘revelations’ won’t do any more than stereophonic visions of the ‘soul’ of Grandma will do.

            But the principal argument for the resurrection of Grandma is the resurrection of Jesus. 1 Cor 15:1-11 ‘reminds’ the reader of the main points. It is a constraint on the interpretation of 1 Cor 15: 1-11 that it provide material for an argument that historical Grandma will come back together so you can see and talk to her. His argument is, we know that historical Grandma will rise again and meet us, because we know that historical Jesus rose again to and met the 12, the 500 etc.

            The passage is thus immediate proof that Paul does not himself accept ‘mythicism’ and that he is a ‘historicist’. This is a claim about the meaning of the text. He might be making up this Jesus character but even then *what he is making up* is a historical Jesus, which means: one who was perceptible in common by anyone number of people present in any room in which he was present, as an oak tree is perceptible in common to any number of people in the garden in which it grows.

            Your claim was that “There is nothing in 1 Cor. 15 in particular or Paul in general that suggests that anyone was a follower of Jesus prior to the crucifixion.” Paul is arguing, or rather reminding us, that we have the structure: Living Historical Guy: Dead Historical Guy: Living Glorified Historical Guy. The means he adopts in order to emphasize this (all for the sake of the point about Grandma), is the appearances to the external senses of the 12, the 500, etc. It is essential to the actual argument that the once-historical Jesus had appeared (re-historicized, so to speak) to the very same people, i.e. the 12, the 500. The 12, the 500 etc. are needed to reidentify Jesus across time, as you and your mother will be able to reidentify your grandmother when she rises. You might suggest that the 12 and 500 etc. weren’t “followers” before the crucifixion. But the text cannot intelligibly be interpreted except as saying that followers of Jesus who saw him after the resurrection also saw him before the resurrection.

            The statement “There is nothing in 1 Cor. 15 in particular or Paul in general that suggests that anyone was a follower of Jesus prior to the crucifixion” is thus false.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Of course, if you don’t think that Jesus was known to have lived and died not long before the time when Paul was writing, you have to provide an alternative understanding of the context for his letters – and that’s when the trouble starts. The “best” alternative theory on offer is that Jesus was believed to have lived and died in some heavenly realm.

            There is no indication in Paul’s letters that he is relaying a tradition about the death of Jesus which has been handed down through the generations. Paul’s sense of urgency clearly rules out that possibility. That sense of urgency is exactly what you would expect if Paul was reacting to a recent historical event. The challenge for the mythicist is to get rid of a historical Jesus while also explaining why Paul seems to be reacting to something within living memory. The answer is to keep the event as being recent but transfer it to the heavens.

            But why go to all that trouble? Mythicism seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

          • Psycho Gecko

            Don’t know why it’s showing me as a guest up there. In regards to 2nd Temple Judaism, the fact that early Christianity resembled Judaism is no accident. It’s an offshoot of Judaism, much like how Islam resembles the two. So the idea that a religion branched off from Judaism isn’t actually proof that the water-walking resurrecter actually existed. Heck, Judaism and the Jews came from Canaan, and it didn’t take too long before they started saying they were enslaved en masse in Egypt and claiming that Canaanites worshiped false gods. Just think of all the archeological evidence we’d have had to ignored if we took those claims at face value.

            So 2nd Temple Judaism faced another religion trying to poach its followers. That’s like saying Saturnalia proves a historical Jesus because the early Christians also decided to have a time of feasting, singing, merriment, gift-giving, and treating the poor better during late December by arbitrarily moving the alleged birthday of Jesus around.

          • Mark

            You don’t seem to be mentally capable of distinguishing the propositions “Jesus actually existed” and “the water-walking resurrecter actually existed”. This confusion makes historical discussion impossible.

  • Mark Erickson

    Thanks, will read it. What percentage of modern NT scholars do you think have read Case’s paper or book?

    As for the point, what about if the reference point was more recent instead of 1911? Would Tarico’s statement “A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity.” be true if you compared today to 1950? 60? 80? or 2000? Why did you choose to compare it to 1911?

    • The point is precisely that, depending on what point of comparison one uses, mythicism might seem to be in serious decline, or having a minor resurgence, or to be fairly steady.

      I suspect that, given how much pertinent literature there is from recent decades, most scholars do not revisit literature from a century ago unless they do research specifically on that topic, in which case a comprehensive survey of the history of scholarship is essential.

      • Mark Erickson

        I’m glad you admitted your point is relative. I think using scare quotes for “resurgence” isn’t warranted if in fact you could use a different reference point and find a resurgence.

        Also, Neil has posted that even using your reference point, there are more scholars open to Jesus mythicism now than in 1911.

        • We could have similar discussions about whether antievolutionism has seen a resurgence in our time. And I suspect that a lot will depend on whom one counts, and who is doing the counting. But the results of such surveys obviously won’t change the fact that the evidence for mainstream scholarship’s conclusions, whether about the historical Jesus or evolution, includes much more in its support than was available a century ago.

          I personally would love to see more scholarship focused on this topic. The possibility of a particular individual not being historical should always be open to investigation in light of the evidence. But what we have at present is not that, for the most part, but rather the crackpot approach which insists that most scholars are closed minded while a handful of individuals are geniuses. When a handful of geniuses manages to see something that most of their academic peers do not – and it does happen – the result is consistently that the geniuses eventually manage to persuade the peers – at least the majority of the younger ones – that they are right, using argument and evidence. At the moment, not only are we not seeing that, but few on the mythicist side even seem to be willing to acknowledge that that is how things have to unfold for them to be truly persuasive.

          • “the crackpot approach which insists that most scholars are closed minded while a handful of individuals are geniuses.”

            So t his is what Price, Thompson, Brodie, Carrier, Davies, Noll and Droge say about their peers and themselves? Really? Why do you call these peers of yours “crackpots”?

          • Lest anyone misunderstand, I was obviously not referring to individuals like Noll, Davies, and Thompson, who are not mythicists, nor even to individuals like Brodie and Price who engage their peers in the scholarly endeavor. I was referring to the majority of proponents of mythicism, primarily on blogs, who are the sort of people who not only denigrate mainstream scholarship, but occasionally even leave comments on blogs which will ignore important phrases in what others have written (such as “for the most part”) and in so doing attempt blatantly and deliberately to misrepresent what others have said.

            It is behavior like this which not only deserves the label “crackpot” but illustrates precisely why I have decided to forego direct interaction with some individuals in this category, since it has proven in the past to be a complete waste of time.

          • Mark Erickson

            Quick make nice – I upvoted your response to ncovington89 on this post. I was happy to see you called Wright a churchman rather than a respected scholar. And congrats that Valerie Tarico has agreed with you that the headline writers were misleading (on purpose, btw).

            But … I have to say that you don’t understand your own sentence construction in this response. “But what we have at present is not that, for the most part, but rather the crackpot approach which insists that most scholars are closed minded while a handful of individuals are geniuses”

            “for the most part” modifies the first clause, not the second. Also, I’ve noticed other examples where you use multiple clauses beginning with “but” in the same sentence. It is not a recommended practice.

    • arcseconds

      That sentence still seems to me to imply quite strongly that the number is somewhat significant and the growth is an important trend.

      There’s been a growing number of famous musicians claiming to be from outer space, too.

      All two of them.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Comparing now to a century ago is perfect, for a very particular reason. The root of mythicism is “myth,” which was a central category in the history-of-religion school that dominated German New Testament century c. 1914, one that was often associated with gnosticism (as in the “gnostic redeemer myth”). But few scholars today find “myth” a particularly compelling analytical category. Now, why is that? Well, part of it was theological: the reality is that the interest in “myth” came out of a pre-WWII-era tendency to de-emphasis Christianity’s Jewish heritage by focusing upon “parallels” with non-Jewish religions. This reached a crescendo when during the Nazi-era it became in vogue for German scholars to deny that Jesus was Jewish, and it’s not an accident that the great proponent of “demythologization” was a known critic of the regime, Rudolf Bultmann. Part of it was empirical: the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the Nag Hammadi texts in the 1940s gave us a better sense on the one hand of Second Temple Judaism and on the other hand of second century and later Gnostic Christianity. We realized that the NT looked a lot more like the former than the latter. Repelled by the antisemitism of the pre-1945 era and better informed through the discovery of new data, the post-war generations of scholars have revised much of our understanding of first-century Christianity. And whilst we might disagree about a lot of things, I can’t think of a single NT scholar who would really want to go back to the way things were in 1911.

  • ncovington89

    I agree with you that Valerie Tarico was way off in saying “an increasing number of scholars” support mythicism. It’s a fringe position, and the idea that we are seeing signs of academia adopting it are bogus. Mythicism might one day become more prominent, although that is only a speculation, not a fact.

    • ncovington89

      Something that I think is of relevance here: Robert M Price wrote a book called “The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems” in which he devotes great length to discussing the mythicist views of the past (one of the ideas from back then was the theory that there had been an old cult that worshipped Joshua which evolved into Christianity). The old mythicists are lot like biologists from Lamarck’s day: they had some stuff right, but overall they were not reliable, and not following a reliable method. The problem with the old mythicists is much the same as the problem with new testament scholars today: they engage in too much speculation. NT Wright thinks Matthew’s mass resurrection might’ve really happened, Marcus Borg floats the idea that Jesus went to India, and so on.

      • N. T. Wright is a churchman, and is taken to task for such nonsense by more mainstream scholars, including ones with a connection to Christianity.

        Borg says the opposite of what you claim in Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, p. xiii.

        Are you just making things up in an attempt to discredit scholars? Or do you just not care enough about the subject and the professionals who work in this field to actually look up what they have to say?

        • ncovington89

          I may be wrong about Borg. That said, there’s plenty of very gratuitous speculation in NT scholarship. A good example might be the reconstruction of John Dominic Crossan, which is based on inferring Q from Matthew and Luke, and then inferring a series of ‘layers’ that were added, from which the original teachings of Jesus are inferred. It’s a chain of weak links.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            And again, do your homework. The truth is that the Jesus Seminar has never been as prominent within scholarship as they have been in the American media. When I think about the big names in historical Jesus studies today I can’t think of a single one who is carrying out a Crossan-esque program of research. Actually, to me Crossan feels like a throwback to the 19th century’s conviction that the earliest source was the best source–a conviction that Wrede disproved thoroughly c. 1900.

          • ncovington89

            You do your damn homework. I give an example of a new testament scholar going to far and you can’t just concede the point that some of them go too far? F Off and don’t assume anyone hasn’t done their homework.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Of course there is better and worst scholarship. That is the case in any field. But you didn’t say that *some* NT scholars go too far. That’s not the point you initially asked me to concede. You said “The problem with the old mythicists is much the same as the problem with new testament scholars today: they engage in too much speculation.” That’s a blanket statement about the discipline. Citing things that Borg never said and positions and approaches that are generally not representative of the discipline as a whole does not sustain such a blanket statement. If you are talking about “New Testament scholars today” then you better show that it what follows is a common trait. You haven’t.

          • There is plenty of speculation, educated guessing, and creative reconstruction in history generally. Our sources abt the ancient world never tell us everything we would like to know. And scholarship by definition requires that new ideas be proposed. Given the amount of interest in Jesus, it is not at all surprising that, in a crowded field, there are speculative attempts to delineate sources or to place him in new categories. But that just shows why anyone who understands how scholarship works will consult the consensus in any given field, and will recognize that the proposal of new ideas is just one pole in the scholarly enterprise.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            That’s a very important point. Crossan is not a bad scholar. He proposed that HJ scholarship should go in one direction, and by and large NT scholarship is not following his proposal. That’s what scholarship is about: ideas are proposed, weighed, and judged. Some will be judged more positively than others, but that’s just the process. Heck, I think that Rudolf Bultmann was on the hand the greatest NT scholar of the 20th century, and on the other hand I think that he was very frequently wrong. But he reoriented the discussion by asking better questions than had been asked before, and that’s what makes himself one of the greats.

          • John Haggerty

            Phew. This exchange of points has kept me up well past midnight. I suspect myself to be a mythicist and may seek professional help for my neurotic condition. On the other hand, only a fool would tax Dr McGrath’s patience. May I as one who admires scholars of all hues in NT studies, quote from Dale Allison’s book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus? ‘The upshot of the foregoing pages is that the historical Jesus remains, in Schweitzer’s words, a stranger and an enigma. As a Christian, however, I do not find this so dreadful. What good is Jesus if he does not trouble our theological dreams? … A domesticated Jesus who sounds like us, makes us comfortable, and commends our opinions, is no Jesus at all.’

          • You need not worry about taxing my patience! I love when people discuss things on my blog! If there is a discussion that I think is unhelpful or tedious or has degenerated into a shouting match or exchange of insults, I will intervene. If I don’t, you can always feel free to carry on!

          • John Haggerty

            Thanks, James. I think you have been more than patient with my ramblings. I read everything of yours whenever I can. My admiration for your scholarship is unbounded. Often I wonder where you will be in your researches ten years from now. I hope I am still around to know.

  • Pausanias

    Just a quick thought about mythicism:

    Rev 13:8 says “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast–all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.”

    If Christ was “slain” since “the creation of the world,” wouldn’t this be more suggestive of a mythicist position than a historicist position?

    • Only if one takes it out of context, since that lamb is also the lion of the tribe of Judah.

      You are really clutching at straws here…

    • Mark

      ‘apo katobolēs kosmou’ seems to modify ‘written’, not ‘slain’ (though it is at considerable distance from it), since the same phrase appears in Rev. 17:8 “whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world “. Here the phrase is not interrupted by the idea that the lamb possesses the book.