Skepticism of Mythicism

Skepticism of Mythicism March 23, 2015

Daniel Gulotta did an interview with Miami Valley Skeptics about mythicism. Not only has he shared links to the recording, but on his blog he has also offered detailed typed responses to questions that he was asked. Here is a sample:

First and foremost, does the evidence indicate a historical Jesus Christ existed? 

Yes. Next question? Okay, I don’t think you will let me off that easily so let me be brief. From studying the letters of Paul, the Gospels, and some other ancient sources, I think it is absolutely clear that Jesus existed. We told from the earliest material that he was executed by Roman officials via crucifixion, the Apostle Paul talks about his brother James and indicates he had other brothers, and Paul also references Jesus’s teaching on divorce in 1 Cor 7:10. From very early tradition we can see a profile of Jesus emerging that places him within 1st century Palestine among historic locations like Capernaum, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. So I think it is obvious that Jesus existed. Really Jesus’s existence isn’t the issue… It’s how much we can know about him that is the issue! But let me explain the question of the historicity of Jesus another way: The man Gaius Octavius, who was born from Atia and later adopted by Julius Caesar, who defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony, was crowned Emperor and changed his name to Augustus Caesar existed. The Augustus Caesar whose father was the god Apollo, who saw the heavens open to welcome the spirit of Julius Caesar joining the ranks of the gods, whose wars and battles were blessed for victory by Mars, and who was a god on earth, did not exist.  As a secular historian and as a non-Christian, I believe the same goes for Jesus. As Bart D. Ehrman puts it, “the Jesus of your Sunday school or stained glasses windows may have not existed, but Jesus did exist. Whether we like it or not.”

Click through to read and/or listen to the rest.

I meant to post on something related to this a while ago, but unfortunately it got neglected as a draft post until now, and so I will include it below. I was dismayed by the fact that Raphael Lataster had the audacity to take his poor online article and make it seem worse. In comments on Facebook, left on my posting of Mike Bird’s response to him, Lataster wrote the following:

Michael Bird’s piece is shockingly bad, such as his defending Ehrman’s and Casey’s recent books on the matter. Those books were rubbish and I have published about that, just not in my 800-page Washington Post ‘article’.

And so I responded:

When one writes an article that isn’t even clearly worded, never mind cogently argued, and then tries to pretend that it is an “800-page” article, it really undermines what little impact one’s vague and insubstantial claim that the work of mainstream scholars is “shockingly bad” and “rubbish.” If you could not tell that your own article fit those categories, why should anyone trust you to accurately apply it to what others have written?

One may disagree with the conclusions of Ehrman or Casey or any other scholar, if one is well-informed enough to do so. But I know that, as an undergraduate student and a conservative Evangelical at the time, I felt justified in dismissing and speaking insultingly about scholars I disagreed with. That is apologetics, and not scholarship. It is an emotional response to the drawing of conclusions that one does not like. Having studied the same fields in greater depth, I may still find some of the conclusions that I dismissed unpersuasive, but I now understand them well enough to know that none of them is “shockingly bad” or “rubbish,” and indeed, some works that I turned to in the interest of supporting my own ideology in that time period are more aptly so labeled.

Lataster wasn’t done yet, and so he asked me this:

James McGrath, do you, like Ehrman and Casey, derive your certainty over Jesus’ historical existence from sources that do not exist?

And here is what I wrote in response:

Raphael Lataster, if you were well-informed and/or serious about history, you would not speak as apologists do about “certainty,” but about probability. The extant sources persuade me that it is likely that there was a historical Jesus. And when mythicists engage in standard tactics of apologists and denialists, distorting the evidence and calling mainstream scholars insulting names, it reinforces one’s sense that the conclusions of mainstream historians and scholars are on target, since if mythicists had a serious case to make, they would not be resorting to such tactics.

If you look into the subject online, you will find that Lataster used to adamantly reject mainstream scholarship in advocating the primacy of the Syriac Peshitta. Now he has shifted his allegiances, but has not moved from fringe denialism to an embracing of the mainstream. It is quite sad to see.

Of related interest, Brandon Smith has an Evangelical response to the latest list of supposed pre-Christian Jesuses that has been circulating.

"From a Certain Point of View: Was Obi-Wan Right to Say Darth Vader Killed Luke’s ..."

Teaching Talmud through Science Fiction and ..."
"Leigh, Where did you find this foreward by Crossley?This seems to be becoming a vogue. ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"Carrier: My argument completely depends on Paul thinking God somehow got sperm from David and ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"There are way more linguistic problems with Carrier's silly "cosmic sperm bank" argument than that. ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster

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  • And of related interest, I am the focus on the blog “The Mythicism Files,” in a manner that won’t surprise anyone who reads mythicist blogs: http://mythicismfiles.blogspot.com/2015/03/james-mcgrath.html

  • John MacDonald

    I also find it interesting that Paul knows about Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Two years ago on this blog (here http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2013/01/announcing-talkhistoricity-an-index-of-mythicist-claims.html ) I wrote: The historical method seems to give us some good information about the historical Jesus. For instance, in terms of the historical method, you can add weight to the criteria of multiple attestation when you combine it with the criteria of dissimilarity. As Daniel J. Harrington argues, by the criteria of dissimilarity and multiple attestation, the prohibition of divorce belongs to the corpus of Jesus’ authentic sayings. The prohibition of divorce went against Jewish practice and even against the permission of the Scriptures (Deut. 24:1-4), and it appears in Mark (10:2-12), Q (Luke 16:18 and Matt. 5:31-32), and 1 Corinthians (7:10-11). Of course, one must take account of the exceptions introduced by Matthew (see Matt. 5:32 and 19:9) and Paul (see 1 Cor. 7:12-16). One must also ask how Jesus intended this teaching to be taken—-whether as an ideal, a legal principle, a protection for women, a temporary measure (in the face of the coming kingdom of God), or whatever else. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that this is good evidence Jesus existed and taught “no divorce.”
    *********************************************************************************************
    By the way, what ever happened to the “Talkhistoricity” project?

    • I set it up but there wasn’t really interest from many people in doing things with it. I obviously didn’t set it up for me to be the one posting there, since I have this forum for myself, and can create a table of contents for things I’ve blogged about here easily enough.

  • I’m no mythicist, but the Brandon Smith post you referenced is just as problematic as the mythicist position. Smith’s very first point is to argue why Jesus’s miracle birth is different than mythological miracle births.

    I’ve quoted Justin Martyr before:

    “when we say also that the Word, who is the first-born of God, was created without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing new from what you believe about those you consider sons of Zeus”

    I don’t quote Martyr to suggest that Jesus did not exist. I quote Martyr to demonstrate that even 2nd century Christians saw the similarities between mythological figures and the version of Jesus that experienced a virgin birth and a resurrection.

    I certainly don’t believe THAT version of Jesus existed.

    • Indeed, and one of the reasons I am concerned about mythicism is that I am concerned about the offering of mainstream historical responses to conservative Christian claims. I don’t think that bogus history can be used to counter bogus history in an effective manner.

    • Brandon D. Smith

      Thanks, Beau, for the response. (Aware I’m commenting a year later!) Your point is well taken, and I admit fully that my faith in Christ most definitely informs my presuppositions on this. However, I think even that aside, we can’t make the blanket statement that the miracle births were identical, as some tend to overreach and say. That make sense?

      • Sure, it’s true that there are over-reaching and silly arguments from some nonbelievers making bogus parallels between Christ and other mythological figures.

        But this kind of polemic is far less prolific than the phony apologetic claims of numerous Christian groups. A great example of this is the video that you linked on your original post. While the Horus parallels the video deals with are bogus, so is the final claim of the video:

        “Well Horus I suppose it is strange that people who insist that they won’t believe anything without verifiable evidence, are more than willing to believe anything without verifiable evidence, as long as that thing can be used to mock the gospel, but we shouldn’t be surprised when people reject proof of Christ’s resurrection in favor of demonstrable lies that let them remain in unbelief. After all Jesus did say if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

        “Proof of Christ’s resurrection”?! There is no more “verifiable evidence” that Jesus rose from the dead, than there is for parallels to Horus. Was Jesus’s resurrection a unique miracle claim? Sure all miracle claims are unique to an extent. But uniqueness is not the same thing as likelihood or credibility.

        As scholars such as Dag Øistein Endsjø demonstrate, resurrection beliefs held by Greeks of the period were most likely influential in the development of the NT concept of a bodily resurrection.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    It’s easy to imagine how the comparisons made between Jesus and “other” mythological figures could be genuinely convincing. It would remarkable if those who believed that someone called Romulus was taken up to heaven wrote letters about the event shortly after it was supposed to have happened. It would be particularly interesting if the more elaborate stories about Romulus only appeared after the belief in his ascension was established.

    It would also be interesting if we had letters written by those who were convinced of the importance of the recent death of Osiris but who found that dismemberment was proving to be a stumbling-block to the propagation of their message.

    And how about a letter in which someone mentions a meeting with James, the brother of Mithras?

  • John MacDonald

    Carrier has posted his take on his recent debate at the SBL: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/6917#more-6917

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Thanks for the heads up. According to Carrier:

      Waters presented no evidence against the fact that all baptized Christians are adopted sons of God and thus, in fact, all brothers of the Lord. I presented extensive, indisputable, and thoroughly explicit evidence of that fact

      I would like to know where Paul actually says that all baptised Christians are brothers of the Lord.

      Also:

      The reason that evidence [of the original belief] is absent is because Medieval Christians systematically destroyed, doctored, or opted not to preserve it in any fashion

      And the Government has systematically suppressed evidence of alien visitations.

      • This is completely OT, but massive kudos for the Bagpus avatar 🙂

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          Thanks!

      • Mark

        It is remarkable that Carrier can think that, in this context, ‘brother of the Lord’ just means ‘Christian’ or ‘believer’ or whatever, given that Paul has already said that the James/Yaakov/Jacob in question is an *apostle* of the same Lord. The phrase ‘brother of the Lord’ in ‘I met no other apostle except James the brother of the Lord’ adds less than ‘apostle’ in ‘I met no other apostle except James the apostle’. It is pretty natural to think that there is a further epithet here because the reader/hearer might think there other Jameses in town, other Jameses who are apostles even — ‘Cephas’ doesn’t need one since it’s a special nickname anyway; (Indeed Cephas’ name Simon/Shimon is so popular it can be dropped as contributing nothing to isolating an individual.) If so, then ‘James the Christian’ or ‘James the believer’ or ‘James the brother of the lord in the sense in which we all are brothers of the lord’ doesn’t help discriminate. Of course, people must have said this a million times against Carrier and co.

        • Mark

          Ah, indeed I see McGrath made just this point against Carrier, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/04/james-the-brother-of-the-lord-and-mythicism.html http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/03/mythicism-and-james-the-brother-of-the-lord-a-reply-to-richard-carrier.html The second is a response to Carrier’s response to the first, which is incredibly longwinded but just reaffirms the point-missing claim,

          “We have two theories: (1) that Paul is merely saying James is a Christian (hypothesis), because all Christians were brothers of the Lord (established fact) and (2) that Paul means to say James is a biological and not adopted brother of Jesus (hypothesis), because Christians policed the use of the phrase in such a way as to make that a practical way to indicate that distinction (not in evidence). The fact that (2) requires assuming something ad hoc, but (1) does not, makes (1) initially more probable than (2).”

          McGrath had already agreed, of course, that a ‘spiritual’ meaning of “brother of the lord” is not absurd here; it’s just that it doesn’t do any work isolating any particular James; why not say “Cephas the brother of the lord” and “James” period, rather than the other way around?

          The first hypothesis would suggest that there were non-Christian apostles named James, which is ‘ad hoc’, to put it mildly. The second hypothesis doesn’t require hearers to ‘police the use’ since if we grant that “brother” can have a spiritual meaning, it will *still* have the ordinary meaning – nothing can take it away – and thus can be used for purposes of specification (if the ‘lord’ had a brother!). Typical ‘conversational maxims’ make this make sense: the hearer will pick the one the meaning that helps isolate *a* James, even if the other meaning is available.

          I wonder how one could formulate this point most crisply.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Thanks for the observations, Mark. I would say that even if Paul had some idea of a brotherhood that included all Christians and Jesus himself, it certainly doesn’t follow that Paul would use the phrase “brother of the Lord” in the way Carrier suggests. According to Paul, all Christians are sons of God, but It doesn’t mean that Paul would refer to a meeting with “James, the son of God”!

            An important part of Carrier’s argument is that Paul used the word “brother” in a metaphorical sense, and, in Carrier’s opinion, “brother” is short for “brother of the Lord”. Again, that doesn’t follow, but what is particularly interesting is Paul’s remark in Philemon 16. There, he refers to a brother in the Lord. That implies a distinction between the metaphorical and literal senses of “brother”.

            Carrier wants us to believe that when Paul writes about his trip to Jerusalem twenty years after the event he goes out of his way to mention an encounter with some non-entity called James. Surely, the encounter could only be worth mentioning because of James’s status as the Lord’s brother.

            Anyway, if Carrier really wants to provide “indisputable and thoroughly explicit” evidence of his claim, he can show us where Paul describes *himself* as a brother of the Lord!

          • Paul E.

            I agree with your thoughts, Cecil and Mark.

            I would add, if Paul’s usage in Gal. 1:19 is not a particularized status usage and merely means “baptized Christian,” it is problematic even if Paul is not calling James an apostle. It is unlikely, it seems to me, Paul would have been using the term to identify James as apart from a non-Christian James (e.g., “I spoke to no one else except “James, the pagan tent-maker”). That communication would have made no difference to Paul’s argument.

            It also seems unlikely there would have been only one “brother James” in the Jerusalem church – James being a pretty common name, I think – such that he would have been no need to identify him with any particularity. In this reading, “brother of the Lord” is mere surplusage. Possible, but unlikely, I think. And even if there were only one brother James in the Jerusalem church, one would need to posit that the Galatians knew who he was or why Paul didn’t explain more particularly who he was or why he spoke to him and no one else other than Cephas.

            Another possibility, I suppose, is that it is a “brother James” who is known to the Galatians and happened to be in Jerusalem at the time, but this also seems pretty unlikely. This particular James just happens to be known to the Galatians, and he just happens to have been in Jerusalem, and he just happens to have been the only other person Paul spoke to?

            Another possibility is that “brother of the Lord” is in fact a status separate from apostle and different from a normal “brother” but still not based on biology. For example, Freemasons call each other “brother” but someone who has been a Master of a Lodge in the past is called “worshipful brother.” But this requires some fleshing out as I am unaware of any evidence, other than Paul’s usage of the term, to support the existence of such a status. And aside from what one may consider a more “natural” reading of the word brother here (I don’t like that argument), there is gospel evidence that Jesus had biological brothers, so it seems to me that is the more likely explanation for the status usage here.

          • Mark

            Right, a spiritual sense of ‘brother of the Lord’ might be available, but the hearer would have to reject it as not helping isolate the James in question, unless, like ‘worshipful brother’, it is a special class, and moreover one distinct from ‘apostle.’

            I still can’t find the right grammatical jargon, but the ‘appositional’ epithet “brother of the lord” is intuitively restrictive: i.e. aimed at isolating the right ‘James’. It is a fact that Carrier has not given an account that could make sense of the element of restriction. On his account it serves no purpose, except perhaps to insult ‘Cephas’ who is just called by a nickname.

            The tradition that there were several Jameses with various restricting epithets ‘son of Zebedee’ ‘son of Alphaeus’ etc. makes this all sensible. It takes us outside Paul, though, so there will inevitably be a possible hare-brained speculation that the other Jameses were invented to make the ‘biological’ reading of this passage possible … Intuitively, though, the need for the epithet here confirms the later tradition of other apostolic Jameses as well as a human family relationship of ‘the lord’

        • In order to isolate an individual, all that is necessary is that a particular moniker is commonly understood to apply to a particular person. Later that same person was known as “James the Just,” but we don’t imagine that every other James was unjust. St. Joseph the Worker is sufficient to identify a particular person even though many other saints named “Joseph” did work. Was Simon the Zealot any more zealous than Simon Peter? Sometimes the discrimination is just a matter of convention.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            OK, so you agree that the phrase singles out a particular James. Now we just have to work out how that came about. The obvious explanation is that James actually was the biological brother of the Lord. Any alternative explanation would be pure speculation.

          • It is an obvious explanation. That James was a spiritual brother of the Lord seems like no less obvious an explanation to me.

          • Then you have not considered the evidence fairly or seriously. Here is a link to save me repeating myself yet again. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/03/mythicism-and-james-the-brother-of-the-lord-a-reply-to-richard-carrier.html

          • Then perhaps you haven’t thought about what the word “obvious” actually means. Even if I agreed that a biological meaning is most probable, I would hardly consider the metaphorical meaning of brother to be obscure or cryptic or mysterious.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            If James was a real person, then his brother was also very likely to have been a real person. That is pretty obvious. You might regard a very close friend as a brother, but you are unlikely to regard a non-existent person as a brother.

          • I may be unlikely to do so, but I know lots of people who regard the risen Christ as a brother and it seems that many did so in Paul’s time as well. It seems to be a rather common phenomenon. Of course few of those people would concede that the risen Christ is a non-existent person, but he doesn’t exist in the way that a flesh and blood person does.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            If you know people who believe that Christ is their brother but also believe that he never lived on Earth I would like to hear about it. But that is immaterial. We know that James was specifically regarded as the Lord’s brother, as you have agreed. If you can explain this within a mythicist context and provide evidence to support your theory I would particularly like to hear it.

          • I began by addressing Mark’s argument that the spiritual sense of brother wouldn’t serve to isolate any particular James. I then responded to your contention that the biological meaning was the obvious explanation. I wasn’t making any broader point than that.

          • Mark

            No one thinks a metaphorical meaning is particularly mysterious, the trouble is to explain how it could be the one Paul intends. Carrier’s account thinks ‘brother of the Lord’ is independently meaningful, but doesn’t explain what Paul’s purpose could be in using the words this way, rather than just speaking of James. Or rather, his account of the meaning entails that it can’t be the one intended. (Price actually makes the sensible inference that there was a small group of believers called Brothers of the Lord, distinct from ‘apostles’ and from the class of all believers — because he sees what Carrier inexplicably doesn’t)

            “James the Just” is a different sort of device, it only makes sense as a pre-established name. I think it only that was used after whoever was named by it was dead — which is what one would expect from its content. For something like this it doesn’t matter, strictly speaking, whether the appended material is true at all, cp. ‘James the Son of Thunder’, who wasn’t a son of thunder. It would just be naming material and the whole expression would amount to one word. Strictly speaking “brother of the Lord” would not be an independently meaningful fragment.

            In that case, though, the explanation of the name “James the Brother of the Lord” goes outside Paul’s text to the community that adopted the name. We would still have the question why they adopted that name, and we would avert to possible independent meanings of ‘brother of the Lord’ to help with this.. Again, of course, only one account is plausible.

            Carrier’s theory, that ‘brother of Lord’ *is* being used by Paul as an independently meaningful expression, and that it attaches to the class of Christians, still fails completely. He just hasn’t thought about it.

    • Jim

      Thanks for the link. RC’s post was quite entertaining. Of the many entertaining moments, one of my favorites was in the concluding section (point 1) re RC’s rebuttal to Water’s position on Heb 13.12 [the fact that he [Jesus] suffered “outside the gate”]. So based on Carrier’s own wording, I’ll have to assume that RC actually thinks Paul wrote the book of Hebrews, especially since Carrier adds “And Paul never mentions Jerusalem. In fact, Paul makes no mention of even a city”.

      Now if Carrier doesn’t think Paul wrote Hebrews, he should have explicitly said so just as he demands of Paul as in subsequent point 2 where Carrier says “Paul makes no mention of the event of Jesus’s last prayer occurring on earth”. Apparently RC demands that Paul should have ended every sentence he wrote with a disclosure like “this happened on earth”.

      It’s admittedly hard to argue with someone like Carrier who has apparently solved everything in his own mind, then states it to be fact as clearly proven in his own mind in one of his own books. Now we’re talking sub-lunar events, possibly occurring just under RC’s own moon. 🙂

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        It’s admittedly hard to argue with someone like Carrier who has apparently solved everything in his own mind, then states it to be fact as clearly proven in his own mind in one of his own books.

        That sums it up perfectly.

        • Jim

          For me, I’d be convinced if Carrier identified/discovered a few variants of earlier than currently available Pauline letters that do not have “brother of the Lord” in Gal 1.19. So I’m all in for contributing to a fund to buy RC a shovel and a plane ticket (preferably one way) to somewhere in Asia Minor so that he can start digging.

          BTW, has anyone here read Eleanor Dickey’s (Classics prof at University of Reading) paper “Literal and Extended Use of Kinship Terms in Documentary Papyri,” Mnemosyne 57 (2004): 131-76 which apparently covers the usage of various Greek kinship terms as found in letters from the early centuries CE? I think it’s available from academia.edu.

    • Paul E.

      Thanks for the link. I tried reading it, but couldn’t get very far. Is it just me, or does Carrier take 100 words to do what could be accomplished (or not accomplished, as the case may be) in 10? Seriously, I just couldn’t handle it.

      One thing I did notice, though, is that Carrier says Ehrman has “reversed” a position he previously took “against” Carrier, and now acknowledges that Jesus could have been seen quite early as a pre-existent divine being. Set aside that I seriously doubt Ehrman has ever taken a position for it to be “against” Carrier, I think this is flat-out wrong. I think Ehrman has said in previous publications going back a while that he thought it was quite possible that there was an early belief in such a pre-existence. I will try to dig up the cites if I have time. Anyone else see this? Am I missing something?

  • Brandon D. Smith

    Hey James,

    Just noticed that you cited me here. Thanks! That article led to quite the discussion on my post, as it certainly did on yours.