Mythicism isn’t Skepticism

Mythicism isn’t Skepticism December 12, 2014

Josh Rosenau wrote a piece for NCSE, “Standing up for Skepticism.” Much of what it addresses in relation to climate change works equally well for mythicism and other forms of denialism. For instance, he quotes Genie Scott as saying the following:

“The term “skeptic” has for several decades meant someone who applies critical thinking and who demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, as Carl Sagan put it. When topics like evolution, vaccination, and anthropogenic climate change have withstood the rigors of extensive scientific testing, it is extraordinary indeed to dismiss that wealth of good evidence. People who do that are not skeptics, but deniers of the scientific consensus.

When one considers the extensive skepticism that has been applied to the figure of Jesus by historians and other scholars, the same conclusion naturally follows.

Rosenau also quotes historian Spencer Weart, and I will take the liberty of substituting mythicism and history into the quote, to show that it is the same sort of phenomenon:

Every novel historical idea must scale a wall of skepticism. First it must overcome the resistance of historians who found the older ideas plausible. Changing the consensus of the experts is only a beginning, however; the public has yet to be convinced. That may never be completed if the new idea contradicts widely cherished assumptions about history. There is yet another barrier if the idea seems to attack established interests such as a religion or an industry. Then doubt is reinforced by denial: concerted efforts to represent the historical consensus as false. Nothing shows this process so clearly as the history of the idea that Jesus is a myth.

…the self-styled skeptics were not proceeding in a normal scholarly manner. Scholars continually test their beliefs, seeking out all possible contrary arguments and evidence, and finally publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, where further attempts at refutation are encouraged. But the small group of scholars who oppose the consensus on the historicity of Jesus proceeded in the manner of lawyers, considering nothing that would not bolster their case, and publishing mostly in pamphlets, books, and newspapers supported by atheist interests. At some point they were no longer skeptics—people who would try to see every side of a case—but deniers, that is, people whose only interest was in casting doubt upon what other historians agreed was true.

What do you think? Is it a clear fit? Obviously the natural sciences are different in the kinds of evidence they deal with, and thus the degree of certainty they can offer, when compared with ancient history. But the similarities in tactics, attitude, and approach are striking nevertheless.


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  • Don M. Burrows

    Yes. A clear fit.

  • arcseconds

    Back in the day when sceptics were real sceptics, they wouldn’t believe in anything at all!

    Modern-day so-called ‘sceptics’ usually believe whole-heartedly in causality and the material world, at the very least, so by comparison are quite credulous.

  • Avenger

    A sceptic is someone who “demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims”. I wonder what an extraordinary claim is. Is the claim that a certain person lived 2000 years ago extraordinary? In my opinion, a more extraordinary claim is that a religious movement whose extensive early writings have survived to the present day held a fundamental belief that is nowhere mentioned in any of those writings.

    Those who attribute a belief in a heavenly crucifixion to the early Christians are clearly not sceptical enough.

    • Kris Rhodes

      Of course some familiarity with the object of your criticism would reveal that they think this fundamental belief is mentioned several times in those writings.

      • Avenger

        And how many biblical scholars would agree that the belief is mentioned?

        • Kris Rhodes

          Wait, it’s not clear to me what you’re saying–by saying “and” are you acknowledging that my post is correct?

          • Avenger

            By saying that some familiarity “would” reveal what they think, you imply that I don’t know what they think. That implication is incorrect.

          • Kris Rhodes

            You are saying you know what they think. But, as I have pointed out already, your words (quoted below) are not compatible with your knowing what they think.

            //In my opinion, a more extraordinary claim is that a religious movement whose extensive early writings have survived to the present day held a fundamental belief that is nowhere mentioned in any of those writings.//

            As I said, some familiarity with the object of your criticism would reveal that they think this fundamental belief is mentioned several times in those writings.

            Your reply asking about what biblical scholars think about this is irrelevant to the topic, and is a deflection, an attempt to avoid my point–my point being that what you’re saying only makes sense if you do not know enough about what you’re criticizing to be in any position to offer valid criticisms.

          • Avenger

            You may want to reconsider your last paragraph.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Why so?

          • I would also take issue with the notion of “a religious movement whose extensive early writings have survived to the present day.” I would think “a fraction of whose early writings have survived to the present day” would be more accurate. Moreover, we have no reason to think that the fraction that survived is representative of the diversity of views in the early movement, being subject to alteration and selection bias in favor of proto-orthodoxy.

          • Avenger

            Hi Vinny

            I think these arguments are somewhat conflicting. The original Christian belief has been edited out, but not edited out carefully enough, because it is still supposedly mentioned in Christian writings.

            It is certainly possible that the original belief was deliberately expunged from the record, but it seems to me that this in itself is a rather extraordinary claim.

          • For what reason do you find that claim extraordinary? Is there any doubt that attempts were made to suppress beliefs and writings that came to be deemed heretical? Or do you view it as extraordinary that mythicism could have been eliminated from the record as successfully as it seems to have been?

            It occurs to me that maybe we are thinking about the wrong growth model. I agree that it is hard to see how a sect that believed in a celestial Jesus became one that believed in an earthly Jesus. However, if an offshoot of a sect the believed in a celestial Jesus adopted a belief in an earthly Jesus, and the offshoot successfully spread while the original sect petered out, the offshoot wouldn’t have to expunge anything as its converts would never have been exposed to the notion of a celestial Jesus.

            I don’t actually know whether this is a model that Carrier or any other mythicist has proposed. I think it just popped into my head but I might have seen it somewhere before.

          • Avenger

            By extraordinary, I don’t mean wildly improbable; I just mean that in the absence of compelling evidence to support it, it can never gain scholarly acceptance.

          • As you know, there is much that New Testament scholars accept that I don’t see as being supported by compelling evidence, but that is neither here nor there. I am doubtful that mythicism as proposed by Carrier is ever likely to be more than an intriguing possibility, however, I can imagine that one day the scholarly consensus might be that any historical Jesus that did exist has been so thoroughly mythologized by the New Testament writings as to irretrievable.

          • Avenger

            one day the scholarly consensus might be that any historical Jesus that did exist has been so thoroughly mythologized by the New Testament writings as to irretrievable.

            Yes, that it is possible. The consensus will then be that we just can’t know what happened. Carrier, of course, goes much further than this: he thinks he does know what happened. The original understanding of Jesus was completely replaced by something else. The problem, as I see it, is that this claim is simply too big. Since it can only be supported by ambiguous evidence it will never gain acceptance.

          • I think his claims may be too big as well, although I think that his opponents make claims that are way too big as well, e.g., authentic deeds and teachings of Jesus can be identified with a high degree of certainty. I think that leaves a huge number of points in between, any one of which might be where the truth lies.

          • Neko

            The thing is, Paul’s letters are the earliest; Paul believed Jesus was raised from the dead and affirmed that Jesus had “appeared” to many; Paul was a Pharisee who believed in the resurrection of the body; Paul believed Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection; Paul described Jesus as the Second Adam; “Adam” was a human. All other data aside, what inference can be made from this evidence? Paul (and you may or may not grant that he was a contemporary of Jesus) believed Jesus was a human who was raised bodily from the dead.

            Now I would like the skeptics and Carrier fanboys to sum up the counter-argument from the same evidence.

          • Neko,

            Unfortunately, I can see no possible justification for leaving “[a]ll other data aside.” If I allow you to play that game, shouldn’t I allow the mythicists to play it as well? They will point out that Paul contrasts Adam the living being with Jesus the life-giving spirit. They will also pick out their pet passages from Philo and the Ascension of Isaiah. I’m quite confident that they can come up with a collection of evidence from which it would be very difficult to make the argument for historicity.

            Whenever you leave aside data that doesn’t support a particular position, that position is likely to look much more compelling than it really is.

          • Neko

            The kind of additional data I had in mind were the usual supports for historicity in the undisputed epistles, such as the meeting with James, the references to Jesus’s lineage and birth, and so on. (I saw this coming and should’ve just dropped that bit about “other data” altogether.) I’m not talking about other sources like Philo and the Ascension of Isaiah. Mythicists argue on the basis of Paul that Jesus never existed. So, if all we had were these letters, what conclusions would we draw about Paul’s understanding of Jesus? Fine with me to introduce the “life-giving spirit.” Clearly Paul also thought Jesus was a divine being who brings life unlike Adam who brought death.

          • If I had only his letters to go on, I think I would conclude that Paul thought Jesus had been a man who walked the earth, but I would also conclude that Paul didn’t think that Jesus had been a teacher or a healer nor did he think that anyone he knew personally had been a disciple of Jesus during his time on earth.

          • Neko

            Fine, the issue isn’t Jesus’s profession but whether he existed. So…even you concede, based on his letters, that Paul thought Jesus had existed as a man on earth.

            nor did he think that anyone he knew personally had been a disciple of Jesus during his time on earth.

            So you’re with the mythicists on “James the brother of the Lord”? (Not that James, if a biological brother, appears to have been a disciple of Jesus during his time on earth.)

            Just curious how you think the whole exorcist/sorcerer/healer/miracle worker/Messiah thing in the gospels developed and how to explain the apologetics. The evangelists went into contortions trying to get the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem and explain his failing powers in his hometown in the sticks and why his family thought he was crazy, etc. because…????

          • I don’t concede that Paul thought Jesus had existed as a man on earth. I’m merely saying that I think that it is the most natural reading. However, I also think that for Paul, the man Jesus was doesn’t matter at all. For Paul, all that matters is what God did after Jesus died and heavenly being that Jesus became. As a result, I think that anyone who goes to Paul looking about information about the earthly Jesus is probably wasting their time since Paul’s purpose was never to communicate any information about him.

            Tell me what you think of this analogy: Suppose that I wrote a number of essays about my marriage in which I never related any information about my wife’s childhood because I didn’t think that anyone needed that information in order to understand the points I was making about our marriage. It would be obvious that my wife didn’t spring into existence on our wedding day and it would be reasonable to assume that what I know of her past shapes how I think about who she is today. Thus, it might be reasonable to assume that hints about her past might be found in the essays. Nevertheless, it might be impossible to draw any accurate conclusions about my wife’s childhood or how I felt about it if my purpose is not to communicate that information.

            Paul’s complete lack of interest in anything that Jesus said or did prior to the night before he was crucified makes me wary of trying to draw any conclusions about what he thought on the matter. Unlike my marriage essays, which we could reasonably assume were effected by my understanding of my wife’s past, I don’t think we can assume that anything Paul has to say actually depends on anything that the historical Jesus ever said or did. I think that Paul gives us too little data from which to extrapolate what he thought about the pre-resurrection Jesus. Moreover, Paul says enough weird things that I can’t discount the possibility that the most natural reading might be completely wrong.

            As to your last question, here is the kind of thing that I think might explain the data we have:

            The historical Jesus of Nazareth was in fact a revolutionary Zealot who advocated violent opposition to Romans. The Romans caught him and his followers and put them all to death. Some devout Jew who had been fervently praying for God to send a Messiah only to have his hopes repeatedly crushed comes to the conclusion that God’s plan is actually for the anointed one to suffer for the sins of his people before final vindication comes. This devout follower has a vision of a vindicated Messiah that he associates with Jesus of Nazareth whose crucifixion he recently witnessed. Because the life of the actual Jesus didn’t have any significant theological content, the initial message focuses exclusively on the theological meaning of his resurrection. That understanding rests on claims of direct revelation from God.

            Sooner or later, however, it is found that stories about things the earthly Jesus said and did become useful evangelistic tools. As a result, people search the scriptures to learn the kinds of things that Jesus must have done during his life since he was Messiah, and they attribute teachings directly to the earthly Jesus rather than claiming divine revelation as support. Eventually somebody puts the stories together into a narrative.

            Now I have no idea whether this is what actually happened, however, I do think that stories about the earthly Jesus were preserved and transmitted in order to promote belief in the theological meaning of his death and resurrection. I don’t think that it would have mattered whether a story was invented or remembered if it was effective in gaining converts. Moreover, I’m doubtful that any actual information about the historical Jesus is necessary to explain the stories that eventually came to be recorded in the gospels. I think the stories are just as well explained by a Jesus who was something like the character we find in the gospels as by a Jesus who was nothing like that character, or maybe even by a Jesus who was a figment of someone’s imagination.

          • Neko

            Sorry, sorry, you don’t concede, you entertain the possibility. OK. And OK, Paul was focused on the resurrected Christ and the end of time and so on. But “Paul’s purpose was never to communicate any information about [Jesus]”? That is a pretty emphatic imputation of motive. In fact, if that’s the case, what is the motive? And anyway, as you know, it’s not precisely the case. Paul does mention a few biographical details about Jesus: born of a woman and a son of David, whose disciples participated in a bread & wine ritual with him, who was betrayed and crucified, and who apparently disapproved of divorce. It’s kind of hard to imagine a guy with a mind like Paul’s not being interested in the life of the Messiah.

            Paul’s complete lack of interest in anything that Jesus said or did prior to the night before he was crucified…

            He appears interested in the Last Supper. He says the details were “received from the Lord,” but unless you accept Jesus “appeared” to Paul to relay this event, he got the story from someone.

            Anyway, the point of bringing up the epistles was not for what they reveal about Jesus’s life (obviously, there’s not much there) but that they reveal there was a life.

            Thanks for the analogy and the theory, which is interesting. Since you posit an “earthly Jesus,” that’s all I was getting at with the apologetics in the gospels. What would be the point of moving poor very pregnant Mary all over the desert to get Jesus born in the right town for the Messiah if it wasn’t well known Jesus was from Nazareth (a place some mythicists apparently also believe never existed), just to take one of the more familiar of many examples of “embarrassment” (also, of course, scorned by mythicists). It does seem Jesus existed. Who was he? God only knows.

          • While it is possible that Paul is simply passing along historical tidbits that he picked up from the companions of Jesus, I think that there is plenty of room for uncertainty.

            I don’t believe that Matthew and Luke placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because Mary told them that’s what happened. I believe they placed it there because they needed it to be there for theological reasons. By the same token, I think that “descended from David according to the flesh” is something Paul needed to be the case independently of any information he had about Mary or Joseph’s ancestry.

            “Born of a woman” is rather an odd biographical detail. It is sort of like saying “Well, he’s a mammal.” Once again, I think it is part of a theological formulation rather than a historical detail. In fact, as a biographical detail, it is problematic in that I cannot see why anyone would ever bother to mention unless there was some doubt about it.

            I think that plenty of scholars would say that the Eucharist is a post-resurrection interpretation of the early church rather than something Jesus actually instituted. I don’t think that there is any way to determine that it is based on some actual meal with Jesus that was remembered rather than being adapted from some other ritual meal. Nor would I interpret Paul’s revelation claim as another personal appearance by the risen Christ. Rather, I think Paul was the kind of guy who was apt to think that any idea that came into his head was put their by God.

            I agree that Jesus being from Nazareth is a good candidate for the application of the criteria of embarrassment. I just don’t think that it is such a slam dunk that it settles the issue. I don’t think we can be sure that there might not have been some reason for a report that Jesus was from Nazareth other than him really having been from there. For example, Matthew claims that it fulfilled some prophecy.

            If two students turn in highly similar papers, it may not prove that they copied nor who copied from who if they did, but it puts the question of whether one of the papers is not original work on the table. The teacher might choose to give them the benefit of the doubt, but she necessarily must have less certainty than she would have otherwise unless there is some way to establish their independence.

            I think that the trend in New Testament scholarship is pretty clearly towards less and less security about the historicity of details about the historical Jesus. I think the emergence of something like social memory theory is a reaction to the recognition that the traditional criteria won’t bear the weight that scholars might like them to bear. I also think that the trend is towards identifying more and more possible sources of borrowing, which does not prove that borrowing occurred, but necessarily creates less and less certainty in the same way that similar test papers do.

            So while I may think that things like Jesus being from Nazareth still hold up pretty well, I am reluctant to put too much weight on it given the trends. Given the trends, it doesn’t surprise me that a scholar like Brodie might ride the pendulum over to the other side, but I don’t think it can be dismissed as unrestrained parallelomania.

          • Paul E.

            Really good point about how Paul saying Jesus was “born of a woman” is odd. As a formulation, I cannot see how one could describe it as a “biographical detail” of a person in any sense unless something is being lost in translation. Is that the case? Is “born of a woman” a weird way of translating an idiom meaning “born”? Something like “son of man” just meaning “someone”? Or does the scholarship acknowledge the oddity of the formulation? And if so, what is the range of explanations? I am very unfamiliar with this area.

          • I don’t know what the consensus is on that. I’ve seen a couple different explanations relating it to Jesus being born under the law, but I’m not sure what the exact theological point is.

          • Avenger

            I think this is another case of Carrier trying to have his cake and eat it. It is pretty obvious what “born of a woman” would mean in mythological terms. If Jesus was a mythic hero then his birth would, presumably, be similar to that of Perseus, for example. Perseus was fathered by a god but he had a normal (albeit fictional) birth to a human mother.

            In other words, being “born of a woman” could easily have a mythological meaning, but not the one that Carrier wants to attribute to Paul. You certainly wouldn’t expect a purely celestial being to be born of a woman.

          • Neko

            Excellent point. Your mythical example is unobjectionable.

          • I’m not really sure what my expectations might be about how a celestial being would be born. I have never really thought about it that much, but you may be right about Carrier and his cake.

            “Born of a woman” strikes me as the kind of thing you might say about a supernatural being who had only been encountered in visions and revelations. If everybody knew who Jesus of Nazareth was, there would be no more need to say that he was born of a woman than to say that he was a mammal. However, if people had only encountered the heavenly Christ, it might be necessary to make it clear that he had once been a man who walked the earth.

          • Neko

            If you’re making the argument that a man was divine, then yes, you might reiterate the point that the person was “born of a woman” (mindful that we who operate in the bog of ignorance of koine Greek may not fully grasp the meaning of the phrase or any other of the laboriously parsed texts in the controversy).

          • Mindful of my ignorance of Greek, it is hard for me to see how “born of a woman” could support an argument that a known human was also divine as all known humans are born of a women. I do see pretty clearly how it might support a claim that a divine being was also human.

          • Neko

            You knew what I meant!

          • Based on your response, I would have to say that i didn’t.

          • Neko

            Ha! OK, my bad.

          • Yes, “born of a woman” is simply another way of saying “person” – see its use in Matthew 11:11. It may sound weird in English, but it is just an overly-literal translation of an expression.

          • Paul E.

            Ok, thanks – makes sense.

          • Neko

            I don’t believe that Matthew and Luke placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because Mary told them that’s what happened. I believe they placed it there because they needed it to be there for theological reasons.

            Huh? That was precisely my point. Likewise “descended from David according to the flesh.” Yes, theological, but “according to the flesh,” well…what is the meaning if not “in the flesh.” No doubt mythicists have theories about this that I’ve forgotten.

            “Born of a woman”: I see Dr. McGrath has addressed this point. Do you read the NT in koine? I don’t.

            The trend toward “less security about the historicity of details about the historical Jesus” is about two hundred years old, isn’t it? You may be right about social memory theory; however, I’d think refinement of or innovation in methodology is to be expected in any scholarly field. Anyway, the criteria are supposed to be considered in concert.

            What little I read of Brodie was so far-fetched I was dissuaded from shelling out $25+ for his book. Did you read it?

          • When you said Paul was interested in “biographical details,” I was thinking in terms of the kinds of distinguishing information that you might learn about a person from people who knew him personally. That is why I am reluctant to describe “born of a woman” and “descended from David the line of David” as biographical details. They do seem to point to Paul believing that the heavenly he encountered in visions and revelations had once been a man who walked the earth, but they aren’t the kind of things that establish the historicity of that man.

            Say for example that I claim to have seen the ghost of Robin Hood. That would not be any evidence that Robin Hood had been a historical person although it might establish that I believed Robin Hood had been a historical person.

            I suppose it may be reasonable to expect the refinement of methodology in any field, but I question whether there is anything comparable that goes on in any other field of ancient history. Based on what I have seen, I would guess that historians of ancient Rome agree pretty well about what things can be known with reasonable certainty about Julius Caesar and what things cannot. I doubt anyone is trying to develop new criteria in an effort to determine the authenticity of stories about the conversation Caesar had with his wife before he left for the senate on the Ides of March.

            I suspect that part of the reason that it goes on in New Testament studies is the substantial amount of faith based scholarship. For every skeptical idea that has gained prominence, there has been a squad of scholars producing papers defending traditional views. If a classicist claimed to have developed criteria which allowed him to determine the actual content of Caesar’s conversations with his wife, most of his colleagues would delight in picking it apart. In New Testament studies, however, there will always be a contingent that will embrace any method that purports to provide certainty about the historical Jesus in order to use that method to argue for the certainty of traditional views.

          • Neko

            You wrote: When you said Paul was interested in “biographical details,” I was thinking in terms of the kinds of distinguishing information that you might learn about a person from people who knew him personally.

            Sure, but I didn’t mean Jesus’s mother, who Paul never claims to have met. Yes, I’d consider “born of a woman” to be just such distinguishing information, since Paul appears to have been actively engaged with people, and rather intensely engaged with the followers of Jesus, who of course he claims to have persecuted, and whatever he knew about them seems to have lodged in his mind (unless you attribute his conversion to Jesus throwing him off a horse). I remember you once speculated that Paul might have invented for propagandistic purposes that bit about persecuting the Jesus-followers. It’s possible, but wow! You sure are suspicious of Paul.

            Obviously the most critical piece of biographical data is the crucifixion. I haven’t read Carrier’s book. Did he discover a description anywhere of an angel or demi-god getting crucified, as he likes to put it, in outer space?

            I’m pretty skeptical of your analysis of the field of NT studies. First of all, you’re not an academic, are you? Aren’t you a lawyer? Anyway, how do you know what historians of antiquity are up to? Don’t they also overwhelmingly support the contention that Jesus existed? Most apologists aren’t taken all that seriously as historical Jesus scholars, are they? What about the many distinguished Jewish scholars who contend that historical information about Jesus may be extracted? You can’t exactly dismiss them as Christian apologists. In short, you seem to be overstating the “substantial amount of faith based scholarship.”

            You never answered my questions about whether you read the NT in the original koine Greek, and whether you read Brodie’s book.

          • I have no knowledge of Greek and I haven’t read Brodie’s book; I have a law degree, but I spent most of my career in the securities industry trading derivatives; I am not an academic, but my father and three of my siblings are PhD’s who have taught at the university level so I have had a lot of exposure to academics.

            I am very suspicious of Paul and I have never understood why everyone is so willing to take his statements at face value. Paul thinks that he is the (or an) instrument through which God communicates with the world. While he may be perfectly sincere, he could just as well be delusional, narcissistic, and/or a pathological liar. I think that it is entirely appropriate to take everything he writes with the same grain of salt that I would take the writings of Joseph Smith, David Koresh, or L. Ron Hubbard.

            Last time I looked at his website, William Lane Craig was still claiming that Bart Ehrman affirmed the historicity of the honorable burial and the women finding the empty tomb despite Ehrman’s explicit denial in their 2004 debate. People incorrectly claim that some authority supports their position constantly even when the truth is only a couple mouse clicks away. So when Paul makes some vague claim about the other apostles endorsing his message, I cannot see how it can reasonably be made to carry any real weight in a historical analysis.

            While I think it is perfectly plausible that Paul persecuted Jesus’ followers prior to his conversion, I don’t think that I can have any certainty about the extent of the persecution or the reasons for it. Moreover, having seen how effective the “I was a religion hating atheist” shtick has been for Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell, I think I have to allow for the possibility that there is a good deal of shtick in Paul’s “I was the church’s worst enemy before God revealed himself to me.”

            My knowledge of what historians do comes from reading books and listening to The Great Courses. It was a professor of ancient Roman history who said that historians recognize that they cannot have any certainty about something like Caesar’s conversation with his wife on the morning of his assassination. Classicists acknowledge that they cannot be certain what Socrates really said or did because they we can’t know when Plato was putting his own ideas in Socrates mouth. They acknowledge this limitation despite having the writings of three men who knew Socrates personally.

            Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, do think they can be certain about some of the things Jesus said and did. Moreover, it’s not just the conservative Christians who make these claims. McGrath talks of being “almost certain” about things Jesus said or did and Ehrman talks of being certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” that Paul met Jesus’ biological brother and Casey insists that he can use his knowledge of Aramaic to be certain that particular sayings go back to a historical Jesus. They are sure they can tease such details out of anonymous writings filled with supernatural stories, based on unidentified sources, which are themselves removed an unknown number of times in decades of oral tradition from people whose firsthand knowledge of the events is uncertain.

            So I do think that something very different is going on in historical Jesus studies than goes on in other fields of ancient history and the only explanation I can see is the influence of faith based scholarships. I don’t know whether those other historians overwhelmingly affirm the historicity of Jesus, but I would certainly like to see the argument for historicity made by someone who doesn’t have the illusions of certainty that seem so common to me among New Testament scholars.

          • Neko

            OK, you have some exposure to academia and listened to The Great Courses; I suppose I was struck by the confidence with which you dismiss NT studies as captive to confessional scholarship in defiance of what actual scholars in the profession assert. Doesn’t mean you’re wrong, just remarkably assured for a layman.

            William Lane Craig! Even I know he’s a rank apologist and would treat his conclusions accordingly, as I presume his colleagues acknowledge. I will simply note what you already know, that some of the most vociferous defenders of the historical Jesus are atheists, agnostics and/or Jewish. If NT scholars are so ideologically hidebound, you’d think Jewish scholars would be all over mythicism, wouldn’t you? Even the Talmud never suggests (?) that Jesus wasn’t a man.

            I agree with you, though, that Ehrman and other scholars perhaps overreach with their “certainlys.”

            I did once ask a modern historian what he thought of NT studies, and he was rather sanguine. Of course, that is a sample size of one.

          • I wish more scholars would openly call William Lane Craig a rank apologist! The problem is that there is a robust evangelical subset of scholars (both in NT studies and in Philosophy of Religion) who practice and publish ahistorical apologetics (sometimes their very title is “professor of apologetics”) and call it scholarship. WLC was welcomed and touted recently at a Baylor “philosophy” conference, along with a number of similar apologists.

            Perhaps they are not mainstream; but they certainly have more inroads into mainstream publication and influence than mythicists do.

          • I think that mainstream secular scholars in Biblical studies respond less optimistically about our own field, than those in related fields do, because we are more keenly aware of the presence of apologists in our field – they are in general not taken seriously outside of conservative Christian circles, but nonetheless they are thought of as associated with our area of inquiry and are felt to tarnish its reputation. I suspect that a historian who never takes notice of those apologists and just reads more mainstream scholarship might not be particularly worried, and perhaps that ought to encourage those of us in Biblical studies – although again, it is inadvisable to make much of a survey of a sample size of 1, as Neko indicated.

          • But isn’t there a big difference between mainstream secular scholars aware of apologists in Biblical studies, and mainstream secular scholars aware of apologists in other fields? Is there any other field in which conservative Christian ideology promotes such a strong and corporate bias on scholarship as there is in Biblical studies?

            I’m not saying that there can’t be bias or ideology in other fields. But in what other field is such bias so strongly held and fostered by collective religious groups?

            You could say YEC’s – but YEC’s aren’t publishing alongside legitimate scholars of biology. Apologists are publishing alongside legitimate scholars of biblical studies and philosophy of religion.

          • I think you’ll find that, for the most part, the apologists publish in church-affiliated venues. I think you’ll also find that, the further along the spectrum that one moves from “almost purely an apologist” to “almost purely a scholar,” the more frequently they will be publishing in secular scholarly outlets.

            The apologists certainly are loud in the domain of religion. But I don’t think that, if you stick to mainstream university presses and premiere journals, you will find that there is a strong conservative Christian or other apologetic bias.

          • Paul E.

            In my limited experience, I have found this to be generally true. I wonder, though, what the more subtle biases are. For example (and I have no data or anything to back this impression up – it is an impression only), I think most people are drawn to Biblical studies because of faith. They may modify that faith through study, or lose it altogether. In fact, some may have a “violent” reaction to losing their faith and attempt to jettison all the intellectual baggage that came with it and take radical positions. But most don’t, I think. Most keep that faith baggage in some form or another. And I wonder how those things affect insight and creativity in the field. Certainly, biases can be attempted to be controlled via methodology, but methodology isn’t a primary drive or insight or creativity I don’t think.

            That’s only one example. I think one could think of many other ways in which “conservative” Christian bias or faith bias could potentially affect the field. Religion is a strange animal, and conservative Christianity in America many-times so. It’s difficult to work out the ways in which these things may be influential.

          • You draw attention well to the complexity of the situation. I think that the combined ongoing participation of people who retain a conservative faith which led them into the field, and people who abandon that sort of conservative faith and hold a grudge against their faith tradition for not telling them the truth, as well as a variety of moderates and liberals who are more or less open to the data challenging their assumptions, makes for a vibrant field in which there certainly is bias, but lots of very diverse kinds of bias, which is perhaps the next best thing to relative impartiality. 🙂

          • Jim

            For those of us who are armchair NT/historical Jesus enthusiasts, where can we find the tier ranking of the journals that historical NT scholars typically publish in?

          • Here’s one such ranking, specifically on New Testament:

            This should also help:

            You can hopefully easily spot the journals most specifically related to this area.

          • Jim

            Thanks for the link.

          • My guess is that there is no similar spectrum from “almost purely a mythicist” to “almost purely a scholar”, just a few odd mythicists who, if they publish in peer review at all, it happens rarely.

          • I don’t think that the conservatives hold the field captive, but I think they skew the consensus. I think you can observe something similar in the field of economics where there are a number of conservative think tanks that hire PhD’s for the specific purpose of producing research that supports a conservative political agenda. This makes economics a more attractive field for scholars who support laissez-faire policies than for those who don’t. By the same token, New Testament studies is always going to be a more attractive field for conservatives than liberals because the job opportunities.

            You are probably correct about the level of confidence I express in my conclusions. I do think I am right, but I don’t think that I could withstand peer review.

            I don’t know about the motivations of Jewish scholars. Just as Israel benefits from the support of conservative evangelical Christians, I suspect that the field of Jewish studies benefits from the interest of Christians. I’m not suggesting that this skews the consensus in Jewish studies the way I think it does in New Testament studies, but I don’t think that mythicism would hold any special appeal.

          • Neko

            So what you’re saying is that academics lack integrity and are fundamentally opportunistic, although Jewish scholars and conservatives are even more cynical and opportunistic than Gentile liberals.

            I’d note that even if you set aside consensus-skewing apologists (which I reflexively do), the consensus still exists.

          • I think that opportunists and cynics come in all sizes, shapes, faiths, and political persuasions. I am addressing the influence of institutions whose express purpose is to support one side of an issue.

          • Neko

            I don’t doubt it. But your remarks belie not just skepticism, but suspicion, and not just of Paul of Tarsus.

          • Paul E.

            This is a good point to keep in mind, I think. A good dose of suspicion, over and above normal skepticism, isn’t always bad, especially when dealing with religious claims. And sometimes, maybe the suspicion should be expressed in a way that appears over-the-top (not saying your is) as an antidote to in-grained credulity.

            Here’s the thing with Paul, though: what choice do we have but to base a lot of our inferences about early Christianity on what he writes? We just don’t have much else. So sure, we can incorporate a healthy dose of skepticism and even cynicism or suspicion into our analysis along with normal critical methods, but, in the end, he’s pretty much what we have to go on in a lot of ways. So, while we probably have to temper our language and qualify our inferences carefully, I don’t think that means we have to be nihilistic about it all. Would you agree with that?

          • I think our choice is to do what historians are sometimes forced to do, which is to acknowledge that the evidence is insufficient to tell us the things we would like to know. In such cases, the best that can be done is to lay out a range of possibilities. We can’t draw inferences from evidence we don’t have, but sometimes we aren’t justified in drawing many inferences from the evidence we do have either. I don’t think that there is anything nihilistic about acknowledging that we have too few pieces of the puzzle to give us any certainty.

            I tend to think that we are probably stuck with taking Paul as our starting point when it comes to Christian origins, not because we have good reason to think that he invented it, but because he is our earliest source and he doesn’t give us enough information to have any certainty about his antecedents.

          • Paul E.

            Fair enough; I can certainly understand that position.

          • Avenger

            Yes, the point about Jesus’ resurrection being the first fruits is a good one, although I know Vinny disagrees. It could be objected that what we find implausible might not have been implausibe to Paul, but it isn’t just Paul’s view that we have to consider.

            We know that some of the Corinthians had doubts about the resurrection, doubts which Paul addressed in his letter. Now, wouldn’t that have been the perfect opportunity to explain that although Jesus was a purely celestial being, this didn’t mean his resurrection was any different from the one that we will experience?

          • Neko


          • My problem is that the argument seems to be that Paul couldn’t have believed in a celestial Jesus because it would have been inconsistent with other mythical beliefs that he held. Even if I agree that it weighs on the side of historicity, it strikes me as a very strange argument for a historian to make.