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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