Mythicism and the Teacher of Righteousness

Mythicism and the Teacher of Righteousness November 3, 2014

A comment was left here recently by a mythicist, which asked why, if there was a historical Jesus, he (1) is mentioned for the first time by people other than his followers so much later, (2) none of his contemporaries took an interest in him, and (3) his biography seems pieced together out of parts of the Jewish Scriptures.

qumran caveThe same can be said of other figures, like John the Baptist, and even more so, the figure we know only as the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran. The latter was completely unknown to us until we happened to discover that sect’s trove of texts in the middle of the 20th century. Just about everything they say about him is couched in the language of the Jewish Scriptures, if not indeed direct quotes with commentary. And whereas the Essenes viewed him as possibly the most important person to yet have lived in history, no one else takes any notice of him, and the sect itself gets scant attention from ancient authors.

One of the serious shortcomings that typifies the majority of mythicists is their lack of in-depth knowledge of other Jewish literature from around the time of Christianity’s origins, which provides crucial contextual information if we are to make the best possible historical sense of our earliest Christian texts. Another is the lack of appreciation of the difference between insider and outsider perspectives. One could point, as a modern example, to David Koresh, whose sense of his own importance, shared by a small circle of followers, was decidedly apocalyptic in character. But were it not for the events surrounding his death, few would probably know who he is today. Mythicists are frequently ready to list allegedly parallel movements and literature to that of early Christianity, drawing from far and wide and often with relatively slim similarities. Yet the closer parallels, from apocalyptic millenialist movements which viewed their leader as God’s chosen one of the end times, are barely given a mention, even though the apocalyptic character of the teaching of Jesus and of the early Christian movement is well-established.


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  • Ken Olson

    I take your general point, but our knowledge of the Teacher of Righteousness actually predates the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran by a few decades. A copy of the Damascus Document was discovered in the Geniza of a Cairo Synagogue in 1897 by Solomon Schechter and published as “Fragments of a Zadokite Work” by R.H. Charles in 1913.

    • You are quite right, of course. Thanks for mentioning this. The point stands, though, I think, inasmuch as we find no mention of this individual (as far as we can tell) by anyone other than the composers of the sectarian texts themselves, with one having been found elsewhere than Qumran at the end of the 19th century, but representing a text which is part of that community’s output. And so one could ask about the Teacher, much as mythicists ask about Jesus, if the Teacher was as important as the Qumran sectarians say he was, then why isn’t he mentioned outside of their own sectarian sources?

  • arcseconds

    I also get the impression that many people don’t have any real idea of how poorly ancient history is documented, in terms of extant documents available to us.

    Someone mentioned here (Bernier, maybe?) that our entire corpus of primary texts would only fill two bookshelves or something. I can’t remember what the area/era was, which kind of makes this observation a bit pointless, but maybe someone can remember! I’ve googled a little to no avail. But anyway, the point is, there’s not really much.

    People implicitly import their assumptions from the modern era into their suppositions about what’s likely in terms of attestation. We do have documentation on Koresh, for example, and a figure like Jesus would have at least featured in the local news. Whether or not this documentation will survive two millennia is anyone’s guess.

    Plus there’s also a kind of a retrodiction of Jesus’s later historical importance. And I think a bit of the usual problem common to both mythicists and Biblical literalists, that the Bible is either all true or none of it is.

    There’s a good parallel with evolutionary biology here, of course: the paucity of the fossil record. The assumption in both cases is that we have and would expect to have far more information than we actually do or is reasonable to expect, and possibly also that the historical record shares our interest in preserving things we find important.

  • It strikes me as rather tendentious to say the least to suggest that ignorance of the historical evidence and generic claims about “mythicists” (with little if any qualification) when surely it is very evident “most Christians” are equally lacking awareness of history and even their own Bible. What is lost from view in the post here is that the majority of serious mythicist authors — just peruse a list of contemporary ones, both the good and the questionable, at Who’s Who.

    There is also some irony in the author here faulting his opponents for their supposed lack of awareness of Jewish texts when he indicated at the time of his own post overlooking Fragments of a Zadokite Work as pointed out by another commenter and his own earlier demonstrated lack of awareness of the earlier thesis that the Martyrdom of Isaiah was for long believed to be a Jewish Second Temple text.

    Less ad hominem and more focus on the issues themselves would be a wonderful and welcome approach to the discussion and the enlightenment of the wider readership.

    • Jim

      I virtually never respond when I read comments like these but today, OTMS (one too many syndrome) has afflicted me. I suggest that you take your line “Less ad hominem and more focus”, write it backwards and staple it to your forehead. I find much of your cloaked passive aggressive comments to be an ad-homination. Seriously dude, look in the mirror. To me, that might be a positive step towards moving future conversations (on some very interesting topics) forward.

      • John MacDonald

        I think Neil Godfrey is jealous of Dr. McGrath’s status as a distinguished New Testament scholar, which is why Neil Godfrey is relentlessly and constantly attacking Dr. McGrath’s competency.

        • Where did you learn to read minds and hearts? You really are welcome to exchange emails with me and get to know me, you know.

          I am a bit mystified by “cloaked passive aggressive comments” and “attacking McG’s competency”?

          What should I do? Agree with everyone else here and say how wonderful the posts are when I can see very well that McGrath has misquoted or misrepresented works he writes about? I am not saying he does this wilfully. But we do tend to see what we expect or want to see, don’t we.

          I have demonstrated that McGrath’s citation of Robert Hall about the date of the AoI was a flagrant misreading of Hall’s article; I have demonstrated that McG was flat wrong when he said Carrier did not address the “as above so below” point.

          So by correcting fundamental errors that we don’t expect from a Professor means I am guilty of ad hominem?

          If you begin to doubt McG’s competency when attempting to address mythicism as a result of my clear demonstrations of his errors and false statements, then I strongly urge you to focus on his writings about Mandeanism and the Gospel of John and Christology and such.

          Academics really do have a much better track record when they confine themselves to their areas of speciality.

          As I said in my earlier comment, I would love nothing more than to shake McGrath’s hand and have a good serious discussion about a number of issues, especially the Mandeans. And I would really love it if you guys would try to get to know me a bit, too — I really do find it tedious when people who don’t know me kick me.

          I kept away from McG’s blog for quite a while but have returned when I see him returning to what I know from my own studies to be flatly false assertions about both mythicists and the works he cites in support of his views.

          If I am wrong in my facts and my demonstrations then kick me for those errors. But don’t take out your fears for McG’s intellectual integrity with respect to mythicism on me.

        • I think you should at least give me credit for thanking Dr McGrath for his much improved and most welcome professional tone of his review of Carrier on Bible and Interp.

          That he reverts on his blog to his usual personal attacks on the minds and characters of his opponents and that I protest about this means I am the bad guy?

      • I certainly am flawed but I am at a loss to see what you see as “passive aggressive” in my posts. Are you sure you are not reading hostile tones into my words from your own presumptions? Hey, I would really love to be able to shake McGrath’s hand and ask for bygones to be bygones. We used to hit it off so well till he learned I gave serious attention to mythicism. And I do indeed get outraged when I see a public intellectual failing his public responsibilities.

        Why don’t we try to chat together to see and get to know one another so you can better assess how “passive aggressive” I might be?

        Why can’t we all just address the issues? What’s with all of this “mythicists are so ignorant” or “so stupid” or “so passive aggreessive” business?

        Or are you interpreting my attempts to argue dead on point as “aggressive”? I do try to avoid the generalities and vagueness I find many hostile anti-mythicists rely upon. Maybe clarification of details can seem shockingly aggressive in such an environment?

        • Jim

          My remarks were not so much anti-mythicist directed, but rather I had interpreted capitalizing on McGrath’s oversight on recalling a Zadokite fragment as a tad unnecessary, especially wrt to extending dialogue. If had to recount how many times things have slipped my mind when commenting (on what’s the name of this site again? 🙂 ) – I’d win the empty-head competition. So that’s where my ballistics originated.

          • Fair enough. If this were a one-off I would agree. But I have been involved in exchanges with James McGrath for some years now and my experience has been that so very many such things “slip his mind” and that he “would have had a very different take” had they been recollected. In the recent context of Carrier’s discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah, for example, only a few years ago McGrath made some outrageous remarks about the AoI as discussed by Earl Doherty — they were completely ignorant of the scholarship yet he used his ignorance to excoriate Doherty who knew as much as Carrier and whose arguments even inspired Carrier’s. McGrath has made many such remarks: he jumps in with pronouncements that sound so confident, sometimes (regularly, actually, in his mythicist arguments) declaring so and so says this and someone else said that — but when one checks those sources one wonders sometimes if he even read them himself. All too often he is flying off the seat of his pants when it comes to arguing over mythicism. And I do believe he should be more responsible as a public intellectual who does influence many readers.

            I quite enjoyed his argument on Joseph of Arimathea and we had some interesting discussions about that some years ago. I would love to ask him questions about Mandeanism, too. To be honest, I think he would have made a much better film and sci-fi critic than an advocate for the HJ. I quite enjoy some of his Dr Who remarks. (not all — but many: I’d love to raise with him the notion that Dr Who’s current theme on goodness might even serve as some sort of foil against Christ’s “Why call me good?….”

            I was once very religious, too, and I do understand why people remain attached to Christianity and how it can in many respects be their “salvation” here and now and not only in the future. I feel for people who have had very hard times and personal crises in their earlier lives. But I do not believe that bullying others with gratuitous accusations because they have not read as many books or believe the same things should be excused and overlooked. McGrath can well argue against mythicism (and young earth creationism for that matter) without the ridicule and intellectual bullying.

            And a little more humility in his approach and acknowledgement of his own mistakes would go a long way. I know it is easy to make mistakes and speak out of turn — I have done it too often myself. But I do make the effort to publicly apologize when it is pointed out to me. I wish McG could do the same. We could have a great dialogue — as we used to do about Joseph of Arimathea.

          • MattB


            Why do you blog so much against McGrath if you there is no division between you two?

          • Of course there is division between us. I don’t think i have blogged with reference to McGrath for quite some time but when I do see him publishing things I know not to be true or logical on a matter of some wider interest I do feel I have a responsibility to point out the errors. Bible and Interpretation has a strict no ad hominem policy and they have posted my criticisms of McGrath there so it appears third parties do not see my posts as personal attacks.

            I see many readers like you appearing to lap up McGrath’s words on mythicism and I know McGrath is distorting so much so should I remain silent?

            What I find most interesting is that whenever I point out the evidence for factual errors, even most fundamental errors that a normal reading comprehension should have avoided, and logical errors that a Professor of any field should not make, and I see that such a person has a considerable public influence, — people like you do not question or deal with the evidence but turn on me for pointing it out.

            It is not only McGrath, but I do the same with Jerry Coyne and his similar factual and logical errors fanning anti-Muslim bigotry, too. I refer to the scientific (anthropological and sociological and political-science research) as my evidence — and all I get in response is popular mass-media fanned ignorance of the facts.

            Should I remain silent?

          • MattB


            I don’t think you are very fair with McGrath, and I’m not saying that as a Christian. I really don’t think you represent Dr. M very well. I myself disagree with McGrath on a lot of things but the fact that I believe that McGrath may be in error on some things and right on others doesn’t mean I think McGrath is incompetent or an idiot or a deceiver of some sort.

            Everybody has their idiosyncrasies but I don’t think that is enough to show that someone is not overall an intelligent and honest person.

            And I think that you and I both know that McGrath has been overall honest and fair regarding the mainstream view of Jesus of Nazareth’s existence.

          • I have re-read my initial comment and I wonder where you see it is at fault. If you are addressing my recent comment on his review then I point to Bible and Interp posting it — so we can say a third party does not judge it to be amiss re ad hominem.

          • MattB


            It’s not your initial comments but your overall comments on here for the past few years. Now, I’ve only been on McGrath’s blog for about a year now, but I’ve read your comments on your timeline and other places in McGrath’s archive, and I find you to not accept mainstream views or criticize McGrath and call him incompetent, when he knows more about the topic than you.

          • On the contrary, I certainly do accept mainstream scholarship in many areas and in fact most of my blog is sharing the findings of mainstream scholars. I presume you have never read my posts.

            (Most recently I have posted three times on an article by a Crispin Fletcher-Louis; before that I argued in favour of mainstream scholarship against McGrath’s statements about the Ascension of Isaiah. It is McG who has made demonstrably false claims about the AoI in defiance of mainstream scholarhip — he did that in his attack on Doherty’s treatment and again on Carrier’s. I cited the mainstream source for anyone to follow up the scholarship that McG failed to report accurately.)

            I do not accept certain methods that are used by biblical scholars with respect to the question of the historicity of Jesus because they are at odds with normative methods of scholarly inquiry by other mainstream historians (and I have demonstrated this repeatedly by reference to MAINSTREAM historians and sometimes to the very works McG has misleadingly quote-mined — e.g. Vansina on oral history.)

            Mainstream biblical scholars also publish in mainstream journals and with mainstream book publishers criticisms of the criteria used by biblical scholars studying the historical Jesus and their criticisms are in synch with the logical methods used by mainstream historians of other areas.

            I am doing nothing more than following in the train of other biblical scholars themselves, some of them very highly respected and who changed the conventional understanding of some fundamentals. Some of these scholars have had to face the same ridicule and abuse from their peers before their views finally became mainstream. And some of them still do experience this.

            Of course there are many areas where McGrath knows far more than I do and we used to enjoy stimulating conversations when we first met. I have never denied his knowledge of his specialty areas.

            But I do take exception to professionals who publicly denigrate and insult opponents and use logically invalid arguments to support their case. It is also mainstream biblical scholars who have published the fact that most of their peers do not know how history is really done in other fields. Carrier in his latest book addresses many of these same logical fallacies at the heart of HJ scholarship — especially the circular reasoning and treatment of assumptions and possibilities as probabilities and facts.

            I have apologized publicly when a mainstream scholar has pointed out errors in my representation of them and prominently corrected my errors. Fortunately, however, the number of mainstream scholars who have complimented me for my treatment of their works has far exceeded those exceptions.

            I will do the same for McGrath if you or anyone can find where I have misrepresented him or his views.

          • This sort of thing, Jim, is precisely the reason I don’t interact with Neil Godfrey any longer. Anyone who reads what I wrote will see clearly that, if it could have been worded more accurately, was about someone whom the Essenes considered a key figure in history, but whose contemporaries paid him no notice. If I had said that we knew nothing of him until the late 19th and early 20th century it would have been more accurate, to be sure, but it would not have changed the point.

            And I trust no one is fooled by Godfrey’s troll tactic of saying out of one side of his mouth that he would love to be friendly, while out of the other side he denigrates and misrepresents.

          • James, you will notice that I was very specific about the things we could well have friendly conversations over — and how we did used to have friendly conversations. I was also very specific about what I see as errors of fact and professional approach that we cannot be friends over.

            That is not hypocrisy. That is being specific and careful with the facts. Something i wish you would pay more attention to.

          • John MacDonald

            In reading your post, I made it past
            “slip his mind,”
            and “outrageous remarks,”
            and “completely ignorant,”
            and “wonders sometimes if he read them,”
            and “flying off the seat of his pants,”
            but gave up when I read “To be honest, I think he would have made a much better film and sci-fi critic than an advocate for the HJ.”

            You have one of the rudest ways of expressing yourself of anyone I’ve ever met

          • Well I have not called him mad or deliberately dishonest, etc.

            Perhaps you could advise me how I should phrase clear evidence that McGrath has not read carefully the works he claims to be reviewing or citing — so that he makes false statements about them, and even cites them to make claims they oppose. That really does happen over and over and surely does need to be called to account. But you would rather see me shut up than McGrath take more care with his reviews and the way he represents Carrier’s work. — Even if he completely misrepresents it as making arguments it does not make; and even saying Hall dates the AoI to a time when Hall does not date it when in fact Hall dates the relevant portion to the time Carrier states.

            These are fundamental errors. How do you excuse them?

            On the other hand, seeing that you have pointed out how such phrases offend I will think carefully next time to see how I might avoid such things. (At the same time I do hope you will bring to McG’s attention his own less than civil expressions aimed at “mythicists”.)

          • John MacDonald

            It’s not hard to be polite when having a conversation with someone. Just think about whether the words you are saying would be offensive if someone was saying them to you. It’s the golden rule of conversations.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Are you familiar with the phrase “tone trolling”?

          • Woah here. My original post has not been faulted, has it? I have been engaged in a civil conversation with you, have I not?

            You challenged me on some other issues and I explained myself. I see no addressing the issues I have raised — either in my initial post or my reply to you. I really do feel like people here are more interested in shooting the messenger.

            What about the issues I have raised?

    • Michael

      The discussion isn’t ‘ad hominem’ at all. The question is how one of the chief arguments of the no-historical-Jesus people can be rational if everyone infers immediately that the writers of the Damascus Document were referring to an actual teacher of righteousness. This is a quite direct response to the argument linked. The later statements do not have to do with any individual and thus cannot be characterized as ‘ad hominem’ in the sense you seem to mean.

      Notice that you have avoided actually dealing with the ‘argument from the teacher of righteousness’, and refer almost entirely to past statements of the same author, so as to distract from the actual argument before you. This is extremely tedious.

      The claim about missing the 2nd Temple context and the ambient forms of religious sensibility is very sensible — one feels it immediately with writers like Carrier and Dougherty, to say nothing of someone like Couchoud; Couchoud of course wrote before knowledge of late 2nd Temple religion had advanced beyond Josephus. It isn’t necessarily a devastating objection of course.

      Your remark is unusually tiresome since McGrath, like everyone, knows that fragments of the Damascus Document were known before from the Cairo geniza; he even knew it at the moment he wrote the sentences above. It is more amusing that it seems to have been known circa ~800 to e.g. the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I and on some rather speculative accounts may have influenced the Karaites which is perhaps how it wound up in the geniza.

      The real difficulty with what McGrath is saying is that like most, he doesn’t distinguish mythicism from Jesus-never-existed-ism. They are actually two different hypotheses, and are independent of each other.

      Mythicism is properly a claim about the character of the earliest Christ cult – the death of Christ, on this account, was like Mithras killing the bull or the descent of Persephone, it belongs to an eternal mythical present. This is actually consistent with the claim that the myth is an eternalization of events that were historical, as Troy was found to be historical (not that the Iliad has the form of a myth, quite.) It is thus compatible with the claim that ‘Jesus really existed’.

      The Jesus-never-existed theory is of course compatible with the claim that there was never a proper ‘mythos of Christ’ and that the myth form has nothing to do with the development of Christianity. Here one accepts that standard texts mean what they are typically thought to mean, but insists that they fabricate the individual at the center of them.

      It is difficult to see why the thought that the gospels invent a ‘real’ person in hope of popularizing what was previously an esoteric mythical story, should be any more attractive than the claim that the same invention was made on the basis of prophetic materials in order to make a saleable half-realized Davidic messiah.

      • If it will satisfy I will withdraw my remarks about the relation of the Tchr of R. My point was that this was part of a pattern but that point is lost here so I see no reason to pursue it. I can give the benefit of the doubt on the odd occasion.

        You don’t seem to be familiar with mythicist arguments apart from that strand that is not part of their “mainstream” among those who engage with the scholarly literature. But my own point was not to defend mythicism: but to call for honesty and care in addressing those who do make the arguments.

        Some might say that your references to myths such as those of Mithras and Persephone is a distraction from the arguments McG has been addressing in Carrier’s work or anything that Carrier himself argues.

        • Michael

          I think you can’t have been following Carrier’s argument at all, despite posing as his protector. Carrier-mythicism is the claim that the original Christ stories had the inner character of e.g. the Inanna or Persephone stories. This is the “definition” of mythicism. It is a quite reasonable definition, I think.

          Later the cult organized around the myth ‘euhemerized’ it and attached it to a particular (but fictional and past) individual. That is, the myth was re-read as prophecy, which is what we find in the Gospels.

          He is not arguing that there was an interpretation of Hebrew prophecy abroad according to which a Christ was coming, which some people then claimed *had* been realized (in a person who had in fact never existed).

          This would not have involved a detour by the category of myth, though it seems obvious that any evidence for the former is likely to be better evidence for the latter theory.

          • Carrier-mythicism is the claim that the original Christ stories had the inner character of e.g. the Inanna or Persephone stories. This is the “definition” of mythicism. It is a quite reasonable definition, I think.

            I have not read very many of Carrier’s works but I am in the process of reading his On the Historicity and it’s not the definition he gives of the mythicism he sets out in that book.

  • Dan

    At least one mythicist (Ellegard) says Jesus was based on the Teacher of Righteousness!

    • Michael

      Which is to say, one mythicist thinks that the figure the Gospels called Jesus really existed.