Can Mythicism Kill Your Scholarly Career?

Can Mythicism Kill Your Scholarly Career? March 31, 2016

Can mythicism kill an academic career? Making a reasoned case as a scholar for that viewpoint won’t. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m asking about the way the behavior – the insults and illogic that characterizes online mythicism – might train one to mistake the modes of self-expression that are passable on the internet for what might get you tenure at an academic institution.

I am writing this because I just read Raphael Lataster’s piece, which appeared in the periodical Think! The inability of Lataster to realize just how poor his writing style is, and that he is contradicting himself within the space of a few sentences, is truly remarkable. Just within the first couple of pages, Lataster described Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? as an attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus, but soon afterwards he quotes Ehrman himself insisting that proof is not what historical study offers in relation to ancient figures. He goes on, in an article the wording of which resembles a mediocre undergraduate essay, to show that he does not understand the basics of the field that he is criticizing:

Also, Ehrman’s approach is inconsistent as he and his immediate or like-minded colleagues are apparently the only ones who can appeal to non-existing sources. Somehow, Christians, who could use them to prove the Christ of Faith, need not apply. Likewise the more sceptical secular scholars like myself, who could appeal to non-existing sources – perhaps a long lost letter of Paul, Peter, or James – that contains an admission that Jesus is wholly fabricated. Ehrman’s approach is also inconsistent in that he is unwilling to posit even earlier hypothetical foundational sources behind other (existing) sources, which actually predate the Gospels. I suspect that this is all part of a strategy to overcome the ‘Problem of Paul’. That is, the problem that Paul doesn’t seem to know about the Jesus of the Gospels.

Deducing the possibility or likelihood of earlier sources based on evidence from the sources we have is not the same as merely imagining sources for which we have no evidence whatsoever. And I wonder whether he discussed his argument in this section with his one-time co-author Richard Carrier, who appeals to hypothetical earlier versions of the Ascension of Isaiah in his arguments.

One of the funniest moments in Lataster’s piece is when he offers himself as one of the four examples in his survey of scholars, and adopts a declamatory, almost self-revelatory, tone:

From 2012–2014, I – a doctoral student and teacher of Religious Studies – have published a Master’s thesis, a critically-acclaimed popular book (now accompanied by a sequel), and many popular and scholarly articles promoting the view that questioning Jesus’ historical existence is no longer to be mocked; it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

And he ends with capitalization that must have been learned from online pseudo-debates, because it isn’t something one encounters in academic writing:

What is relevant is that, historically, it seems all too probable that Jesus Did Not Exist.

Mythicism isn’t a taboo idea among scholars. It is just one that was found unconvincing long ago, and has in its favor just a handful of individuals outside or at the fringes of the academy whose approach to interaction with others makes their unconvincing claims unpalatable for additional reasons.

Drawing the conclusion that there was no historical Jesus is something that scholars have done from time to time, and unless you teach at an institution that is religiously affiliated, that shouldn’t be a problem. But if you mistake online mythicism’s behavior for appropriate scholarly decorum, if you mistake its launching of insults at scholars for arguments, and its tactics for logical arguments, then you had better hope that no one on the committee that reviews your tenure dossier bothers to actually read what you’ve written.

Click through to read the article, and then please come back and tell me whether you find it to be as terrible as I did, both in style and in content.

Of related interest, there is a pseudonymous piece by someone calling himself Tim Hendrix, self-published on Scribd, which discusses Carrier’s use of Bayes’ Theorem. See also Bart Ehrman’s recent article on memory and the last days of Jesus, and also Michael Heiser’s round-up of links related to Bayes’ Theorem, including a whimsical piece by Glenn Peoples which uses BT to argue for the non-existence of Richard Carrier.


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  • John MacDonald

    It says you have to pay 15$ to read the article.

    • Oh drat. I didn’t realize that one has to pay to read it – I was on campus and presumably the university has access. I’d try and see if you can get to it via a public or university library database that you have access to.

      • John MacDonald

        I’ll look into it. By the way, Dr. McGrath, if you don’t mind I have a question. We were talking on another post that what the early Christians did was to look for Hebrew scripturess that could serve, when reinterpreted, to help them make sense of what happened to Jesus. We talked about Isaiah 53 being one of those because the Isaiah servant, Israel, matched up with Jesus’ portrayal as representing “Israel.” My question is did the comments I made on that post about Psalm 16 and the Sign of Jonah fit in with this okay? My comments are here: . I’m trying to figure out if I’m on the right track

    • Mark

      Here’s a plain text version, for what it’s worth

      • John MacDonald

        Thank-you very much for providing that. I never would have paid the money. Do you have any thoughts about Dr. Carrier’s conspiracy theory of Christian origins? In his most recent debate, Dr. Richard Carrier explores the idea that the miracles about Jesus were part of a conspiracy. He talks about it at 48:00 – 49:49 of the video, where he starts speculating about the possibility that the disciples were lying about the risen Jesus to create a better world. Carrier continues to examine the conspiracy possibility at 57:37 – 1:00:35 of the video. Here is the video: . I have made this speculation to him many times, including in comments 2 and 3 in Carrier’s blog post from a few weeks ago about why he thought Jesus was invented:

      • John MacDonald

        Lataster says “Speaking of sky demons, according to Paul (1 Corinthians 2:6–10), Jesus was killed by the ‘archons’ ” This is dubious to say the least! And he thinks he is going to teach this in a university ??????????????????????

        • Mark

          It does say that Jesus was killed by the ‘archons’ of the ‘aion’. Which is to say, it’s a straightforwardly anti-mythicist passage.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I think this is my favorite part.

        “Now we are interested in what is probable, as Ehrman should agree, not what is merely possible, so it is hard to see how the mere appeal to hypothetical sources can be convincing.”

        – Two paragraphs later –

        “Of course, since Paul’s letters predate the Gospels, we should allow for the possibility (probability?) that the Jesus of the Gospels is plagiarising [sic] Paul.”

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          I stand corrected. My favorite part is the translation of “archon” as “sky demon.”

          Somebody needs to tell the Orthodox Church they need to stop awarding people the title “Sky Demon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.” Although that would be a very good name for an Orthodox death metal band.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I’m not going to pay the money to read a terrible article when there are so many I can read for free, but the excerpts you quoted are certainly terrible.

    The piece using BT to disprove Carrier’s existence is great, but some of the comments on it are real gold. I especially like the ones about Carrier’s allegorical name and the controversies involved in dating his writings.

    • Sorry, I didn’t realize it was paywalled – I was reading it on campus and presumably the university has subscriber access.

    • buttle

      The whimsical article was actually written by Tim McGrew, who i only knew because he once described Antony Magnabosco’s interviews as a “knockout game” and “baseball bat-level engagement”. I think he is a bit reality-challenged.

      The comments you may be referring to are still from Tim McGrew, where he links to a page where a guy was having problems finding a paper (but a commenter found it for him in 5 seconds, there went his “thickening” plot) and jokes about the name Abraham Lincoln being a simbolic one. If you think this is funny i feel sorry for you, because if there’s one thing Richard got 100% right is the literary nature of Joseph of Arimathea and Simon of Cyrene and family, who are as fictional and symbolic as Barabbas or Judas. You may quibble about the actual meaning of their names, but a proper scholar in the XXI century should at least try to provide an answer. Carrier may not have nailed it but at least he was on the right track: “they were real people” just doesn’t cut it anymore and just betrays ignorance of the source material (or worse, like the apologetic intent of McGrew).

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Actually, I was referring to the jokes about Richard Carrier’s name being a symbolic one. Hilarious. Almost as funny as Richard Carrier’s actual books. The guy really needs to stop taking controversial positions in fields he doesn’t understand. And he may want to learn Bayes Theorem at some point.

    • Mark

      If Carrier had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I did a Bayesian inference on the set of characteristics of fictional supervillains, and it is very likely that set includes Richard Carrier. Ergo, he’s most likely fictional. I’d say a 93% probability.

    • Neko

      The piece using BT to disprove Carrier’s existence is great.

      That whole experience was one of joy.

  • Let me try replacing a word in your initial paragraph:

    “Can Christian apologetics kill an academic career? Making a reasoned case as a scholar for that viewpoint won’t. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m asking about the way the behavior – the insults and illogic that characterizes online apologetics – might train one to mistake the modes of self-expression that are passable on the internet for what might get you tenure at an academic institution.”

    Unfortunately, for “Christian” universities and colleges, the answer to the first question appears to be “no”.

    • Grimlock

      I love this.

  • Thanks for the url to the mythicist article, though I don’t need to go there. Only one of Lataster’s statements says it all, doesn’t it?

    Lataster wrote: “That is, the problem that Paul doesn’t seem to know about the Jesus of the Gospels.”

    Huh? There are a number of references about Jesus by Paul and probably a number of of allusions to points that he made.

  • The barefaced fatuousness of this kid’s pomposity is amazing. Still, he’s learned well from his master, Carrier. Here is the latter’s modest assessment of the findings of his own deeply unconvincing article on Origen and the second Josephan reference to Jesus, written as the conclusion to the article itself no less:

    “The significance of this finding is manifold, but principally it
    removes this passage from the body of reliable evidence for the fate of
    Jesus’ family, the treatment of Christians in the first century, or
    Josephus’s attitude toward or knowledge of Christians. Likewise, future
    commentaries on the relevant texts of Origen and Josephus must take this
    finding into account, as must any treatments of the evidence for the
    historical Jesus. Most pressingly, all reference works that treat “James
    the brother of Jesus” must be emended to reflect this finding,
    particularly as this passage is the only evidence by which a date for
    this James’ death has been derived.”

    Richard Carrier hath spoken! Henceforth, let all bow before this unemployed blogger’s mighty pronouncement!

    Perhaps a future edition of Think! can carry an article by a psychologist on why Mythicism seems to attract immature, abrasive and inarticulate contrarian blowhards with delusions of significance.

    • Jan Steen

      Lataster has learned so well from Dr. Carrier PhD, that even the writing style is atrocious in exactly the same way.

      Interestingly, Ehrman doesn’t seem to find it necessary to defend this highly suspicious approach. Not a single scholar from outside his field is appealed to, who endorses the appeal to sources that are no longer extant and the conclusions of certainty derived therefrom. Of course, he can’t. Because they don’t. If historians actually did this, the entire discipline of History would lose all credibility.

      Well done, Raphael. You have perfectly emulated your idol’s style of mingling run-on sentences with rudimentary, 3- to 4-word statements. An A-, I’d say. If only you had added one or two abusive adjectives, instead of blandly referring to “Ehrman”, you would have deserved a straight A.

      • His article wasn’t wordy enough to be a Carrier-level bloviation. And to get full marks he needed to at least imply that Ehrman and Casey were insane. See “The List of People Richard Carrier has called Insane”.

        • antimule

          The list is shorter than I expected, honestly.

        • Jan Steen

          If Raphael hopes to become employed at a university I would advise him not to go full Carrier. For that would be the perfect recipe for career suicide. Never go full Carrier.

          And learn how to write.

  • Erp

    The advantage of working at a university even as non-faculty; I have access. Some of the other articles in that issue are also odd. For instance “Why Same-Sex Marriage is Unjust” by James S. Spiegel:

    Heterosexual union has special social value because it is the
    indispensable means by which humans come into existence. What has
    special social value deserves special recognition and sanction. Civil
    ordinances that recognize same-sex marriage as comparable to
    heterosexual marriage constitute a rejection of the special social value
    of heterosexual unions, and to deny such special social value is

    The article does mention heterosexual marriages where it is biologically impossible to have children (still ok for the author) but not that heterosexual union does not equal marriage (and in case of rape where the woman becomes pregnant and decides to keep the child, I very much doubt she wants the biological father personally involved but might want a spouse [of either sex] who is not the biological father involved). The article never mentions adoption or that any special protection is needed for raising children which is a multi-year expensive process and might or might not be done by the genetic parents, not for conceiving the child which only takes a few minutes. One would think the peer reviewers would have caught those omissions. Or perhaps the idea is to give the readers practice in tearing articles to pieces.

  • A funny thing is that McGrew uses the correct version of BT whereas Carrier uses an approximation.

  • Mark

    Here’s a plain text version, for what it’s worth

  • psstein1

    I can’t believe this was published in any journal at all. “Scholars disagree on the existence of Q, but what I’m not telling you is that the non-existence of Q is a decidedly minority position”

    Also, I’ve never seen any reference to “The Problem of Paul” is any peer-reviewed work by a NT scholar. Why? Because there’s no contemporary evidence of the “Problem of Paul.” Therefore, it has to be a myth.

  • Grant Mohler

    Don’t you love how emphatic and confident they are to declare themselves right? I can’t tell if he wrote the article to give himself a pat on the back or to actually argue against Jesus’s existence. These are the same ol’ arguments mythicists have been using for over a century nothing new. *yawn*