Jesus, James, and Peter Mythicism

Jesus, James, and Peter Mythicism December 2, 2019

It is worth noting precisely what it is that mythicists do with Paul’s references to Jesus in his letters, and just how easily the same could be done with James, the brother of Jesus, whom most mythicists accept was an actual person, while denying that he was actually Jesus’ brother. They emphasize that he is not called “the brother of Jesus” but “the brother of the Lord” as though the Lord, for Paul, were not clearly Jesus. Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh, showing that mythicists are clutching at straws and have no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed.

And so why don’t they go further still? Paul went up to Jerusalem. Surely this could refer to a heavenly journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, during which he met Jacob, Yahweh’s brother. Simple! After all, Paul himself says that he was taken up to the third heaven.

My objection to this (in case you are starting to think maybe I’m onto something) is that it is the same approach religious fundamentalists take to the text, deciding what it is allowed to mean in advance, and then accepting any interpretation that provides that desired meaning, without discussion or consideration of whether the text more likely means what they think it should. Mythicists prooftext rather than exegete.

Of related interest:

History for Atheists on the Nazareth myth

Jesus mythicism and the invisibility of the poor

Questions: Do You Believe Jesus was a Real Person?

Bruce also interacts with Harry McCall, who claims that I “removed from both his blog and Butler University religion faculty description any claim that he debunks claims that the New Testament Jesus never existed.” I have no idea what he is talking about, but I am happy to reiterate here that I do indeed debunk Jesus-mythicist nonsense, when time allows. Bruce writes nicely on this topic, in a way that meshes with points I made above:

Harry McCall…is a mythicist zealot. He’s the kind of “believer” who puts people into two categories: “against” him or “for” him. McCall is convinced that he has overwhelming proved that the historical Jesus is a myth, and anyone who reads his writings will come to the same conclusion. Those who don’t are immediately condemned and summarily executed.

McCall thinks that just because he writes something, that those who disagree with it or mythicism, in general, are obligated to refute him. I see similar behavior from Christian Fundamentalists. Over the years, I have had countless Evangelicals demand that I answer their “irrefutable” arguments for their peculiar brand of Christianity. There was a time when I would do so, but I later came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Zealots, be they Christian, atheist, or “spiritual,” are closed-minded. Their goal is not discussion, it’s conversion.

Harry McCall Objects to My Rejection of Mythicism, Says I “Hate” Him

See too:

Episode 18: Was Jesus a Real Person?

Memory and the Jesus Tradition

Allan Bevere shared an introduction to the Gospel of Matthew in video form

Bill Heroman blogged about the Gospels as biographies

Bruce Chilton wrote about the logic of Jesus’ resurrection

Apologists aren’t helpful when they appeal to evidence that isn’t conclusive, never mind evidence that may be fabricated or altered:

Did Jesus exist?

Also related to history and Jesus, and the limits of historical study when it comes to certain things many Christians want to say about Jesus:

Mark Goodacre and Chris Keith talked about criteria of authenticity on the NT Pod.

A recent study on the genre of the Gospels:

Re-thinking Gospel Genre After Richard Burridge

A book about the Gospel of John in Jesus research:

Gospel of John in Historical Inquiry – a book note

And more broadly on Jesus and history, there was a preview of Craig Keener’s new book, which I plan to blog about:

The Canonical Gospels as Ancient Biographies

Keener shared a couple of interviews he gave, including one with Sean McDowell in written form, and then this video:

Why are the Gospels the best sources about Jesus historically? (13.42 minutes)

More from Keener:

Reliability of the Gospels article (Influence magazine)

Epistemology and historical arguments—a few thoughts

Historical Jesus interview, part 3 (8.15 minutes)

Historical Jesus interview part 4 (8.15 minutes)

Historical Jesus part 5 (11 minutes)

Historical Jesus part 6 (8.31 minutes)

Historical Jesus interview, part 7 (17.31 minutes)

Historical Jesus interview, part 8 (7.41 minutes)

Historical Jesus interview part 9 (13.16 minutes)

Historical Jesus interview, conclusion (6 minutes)

Reliability of the Gospels (Christianity Today interview)

Panel discussion with Craig, Bart Ehrman, Mike Licona, Rob Bowman (1 hour)

Summary of Christobiography

Christobiography: Within the Frame of Living Memory

Gospels, Biographies, Histories

See also this interview with Keener, and another.


Vincent Henry Stanton, The Gospels as Historical Documents, is available for free online.

Carlo Ginzburg on the Study of History and the Boundaries of His Commitments

Capturing the surprise of the resurrection

Are there contradictions in the resurrection accounts?

Fear and Resurrection: “The Fear of the Jews” and its Aftermath

The Making of a Messiah: Did Jesus Claim to be the Messiah and Predict His Suffering and Death?

Also related to resurrection accounts:

Was It All A Dream? A Resurrection Story



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  • John MacDonald

    I, and I’m sure many others, was initially drawn to mythicism because of the shock value, like the Da Vinci code. We love shocking, alternative histories, like the Kennedy murder conspiracy, and will often gravitate to the tantalizing at the expense of our critical faculties.

    • I don’t think that my interest in mythicism had anything to do with its shock value. I think I acknowledged the possibility that Jesus didn’t exist when I realized how problematic the sources are. I’ve never moved beyond agnosticism because I don’t see how the sources are any less problematic for mythicism than they are for historicism.

      • John MacDonald

        Vinny said “I don’t think that my interest in mythicism had anything to do with its shock value.”

        Do you expend equal time and effort investigating King Arthur mythicism, or is that topic not tantalizing enough?

        • I’ve never had much reason to consider the quality of the King Arthur sources, probably because there has never been anyone who tried to get books banned at my children’s school based on his or her interpretation of what King Arthur said and did.

          • John MacDonald

            So, you are interested in whether Jesus existed because you don’t like the politics of certain conservative Christians?

          • I’m not exactly sure why I find the topic interesting, any more than i’m sure why I find chess interesting or math interesting or trains interesting.

            I can say that I first looked into the quality of the sources as a result of discussions I had with conservative Christians who challenged me to “look at the evidence.” I’m quite certain that the question of Jesus’ existence never came up in my discussions with the book banners, though.

          • John MacDonald

            Vinny said:

            “probably because there has never been anyone who tried to get books banned at my children’s school based on his or her interpretation of what King Arthur said and did.”

            So, due to your clash of worldviews with these conservative Christians, would you say you would be interested in something that would discredit them and their point of view?

          • I can tell you that this conversation is quickly losing whatever interest it held for me. Since chess, math, and trains do nothing to discredit the point of view of conservative Christians (well, maybe math does), I would say that the causal connection between things that interest me and things that discredit conservative Christianity is tenuous.

          • John MacDonald

            What do you make of Ehrman’s claim in DJE that mythicist leanings often come out of people having an axe to grind against Christianity – And what better way to attack Christianity than claim a mythical Jesus?

          • I think that it’s a convenient way to avoid the substance of the arguments.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t think it’s that. I think that Ehrman finds mythicist arguments so wildly unpersuasive that he can’t understand why an informed reader would fall for them. For instance, regarding Doherty, Ehrman writes:

            “It is an 800 page book that is filled with so many unguarded and undocumented statements and claims, and so many misstatements of fact, that it would take a 2400 page book to deal with all the problems (Ehrman, DJE, 252).”

          • John MacDonald

            I’ve been downvoted! No way to tell who it was. That never happened before. lol

          • Gary

            John – I certainly did not vote you down. But I find Ehrman’s comment rather amusing (although I believe a historic Jesus did exist!)

            Just compare his comments:
            “It is an 800 page book that is filled with so many unguarded and undocumented statements and claims, and so many misstatements of fact, that it would take a 2400 page book to deal with all the problems ”…

            With this slight modification:

            “The Gospels and the rest of the NT books are filled with so many unguarded and undocumented statements and claims, and so many misstatements of fact, that it would take a 2400 page book to deal with all the problems!”

            Of course Ehrman has already written a book of many pages in “Forged”, “Jesus Interrupted”, etc. 🙂

          • John MacDonald

            As an interested non-expert, it’s kind of hard to understand the criteria for judgment. For instance, very few academics support mythicism, and it seems to be treated as pseudoscience. But, at the same time, virtually no one supports Goodacre’s theory regarding Q, or Eisenman’s dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but they are still highly respected scholars.

          • Gary

            “For instance, very few academics support mythicism…”
            Of course it has nothing to do with facts one way or the other. But academics are pre-disposed to lean toward the historic Jesus. Simple reason – you spend about 8 years in college getting a PhD in theology/ancient Christianity/religious studies. Then you are faced with a “possibility”, that you spent 8 years studying mythology. Nothing wrong with that, with the exception that you might have thought you were studying something that actually happened. So perhaps like cigarettes, there should be a warning label for religious studies programs in college for the incoming freshmen. “Warning – this Academic Major program may, or may not, be fact or fiction – please take appropriate action!”

          • This is wrong on so many levels. To begin with, those who study religion in general or ancient religion in particular at secular universities are often already aware that religions are a mixture of history, myth, legend, parable, and much else. And that it is a mixture is a conclusion that mainstream academic study leads to. It is only the religious fundamentalists who claim that their religion is entirely true, and mythicists who insist that handwaving can remove every tidbit of history from ancient Christianity.

            But more importantly, what you wrote sounds just like what young-earth creationists say about those who study biology. Do you think they are right that the real reason evolution is all but universally accepted by biologists is because they don’t want to admit that they dedicated so many years to studying something that isn’t true? Or might it in fact be that those years of study are precisely what has persuaded them to hold the views that they do?

          • Gary

            Must of touched a sensitive nerve.

          • Gary

            Just view it as a warning to fundamentalist students. Which, I think, you once were.

          • Yes, those with academic expertise are often sensitive when it comes to denialisms of various sorts.

          • Gary

            Actually, just a personal question, which obviously you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to…
            If you hadn’t been a Fundamentalist when you entered college, would you still have majored in religious studies? Instead, maybe literature, language, philosophy, or something related to internet technology? AI probably didn’t exist then, but something related to it at the time?

          • I haven’t read Doherty’s book, so I cannot comment on the accuracy of its statements and claims. I have, however, read Ehrman’s affirmative case for Jesus’ existence, which I found to be riddled with illogical and unpersuasive arguments. Knowing how poorly Ehrman thought through his own arguments, it’s hard for me to put much weight on his evaluation of mythicism.