The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels)

The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels) December 26, 2019

One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.

They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.

I can understand their dismissal of and impatience with Christian apologists who seem to think that, because we have relatively earlier copies of early Christian writings than most other ancient writings, that somehow vouchsafes that what the authors of those works wrote is “true” (whether historically, theologically, or in any other sense of the word). But the fact that people are badly wrong in one way doesn’t justify being wrong in a way that is in some respects precisely opposite the other way of being wrong, while in other respects is a very similar mirror image.

Achieving historical nuance that doesn’t simply say “ha ha, it’s all true” or “ha ha, it’s all false” is something that fundamentalists don’t have patience for, whether they be atheist fundamentalists or Christian fundamentalists.

What strikes me is that both sets of fundamentalists have a tendency to point out “gaps” in the “fossil” evidence and “missing links,” without either understanding that things we do not know and evidence we do not have is not a counterargument to conclusions drawn on the basis of the evidence we do have. When the evidence organizes naturally into a pattern and the pieces fit together, experts in relevant fields draw the appropriate conclusions.

Of course, manufacturers of doubt in history and science can spin the gaps to claim that the evidence does not fall nicely into patterns pointing in a consistent direction towards a particular conclusion. That’s why understanding this matters so much.

Of related interest:

The gap between the writing of the Gospels and the oldest manuscripts

“With Religious Fervour” in New Humanist


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  • Erp

    Goes along with the claim of dozens of authors who were not followers of Jesus who should have written about Jesus (only two of whom wrote anything about that time and place and one of them did mention Jesus) and the claim that Romans kept very good documents so we should have something about Jesus (ignoring that whether or not they did nothing survives from that time and place except a few inscriptions).

    A page like the talk.origins FAQ could be very useful (http://www.talkorigins.org/origins/faqs-qa.html) with short answers and pointers to the most useful sources out there answering each question in depth). Tim O’Neill’s work is a good start https://historyforatheists.com/jesus-mythicism/

    • arcseconds

      I suggested that ages ago and McGrath even made a start, but it didn’t go anywhere 🙁

      • I made a concerted effort at one point to create something of this sort, but there didn’t seem to be enough interest, and it wasn’t something that I was interested in doing alone as it would essentially replicate my blog content on the subject – or perhaps be the makings of a book by me on the subject. That’s not a bad idea, when time permits! But in the meantime, if there’s now interest in a collaborative effort, I’m happy to be involved.

        • arcseconds

          Unless Erp says otherwise I’m reading this as a wistful ‘wouldn’t it be nice if…’ rather than ‘OK, let’s go!’ 🙂

          I did follow along and even made some very low hanging fruit contributions, and it was clear that you put in a fair amount of effort that wasn’t really being matched by anyone else. Someone needs to persist with it over the medium term (at minimum) to get something with decent coverage of the various arguments and counter arguments and references and so forth… for myself at the moment I don’t need another absorbing hobby!

      • Erp

        It would have to be a group effort. Talk.origins had many people, especially Tero Sands, who were willing to devote the time (http://www.talkorigins.org/tsand.html). Even then the FAQ was an ongoing project for many years.

        First step would be deciding the best way of approaching this. We would need to acquire sufficient community to create and critique the FAQ and an efficient way of doing this. Usenet is more or less gone as a platform so what platform(s) would be best?

        Second step would be deciding the initial questions and categorizing them (some questions would be specific to Jesus mythicism, some to how historians do history). Note the FAQ should probably answer both literalists and mythicists (especially since a moderate number of people falling for mythicisim are former literalists).

        Starting with Tim’s collection:
        Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth Theory, Again
        Jesus Mythicism 1: The Tacitus Reference to Jesus
        Jesus Mythicism 2: “James the Brother of the Lord”
        Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”
        Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures
        Jesus Mythicism 5: The Nazareth “Myth”

        and converting to questions.

        More general questions:

        What is the historians’ consensus on Jesus?
        What is Jesus Mythicism? (including the variants)

        What are the Christian views of Jesus’s historicity? (with subanswers on literalism and those that accept that the Bible cannot be accepted literally)

        How do historians handle documents?

        Thoughts?

        • Here is the blog post from when I tried to start this previously on the now-defunct Wikia site. That’s another thing to consider – what little I put there simply vanished.

          https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2013/01/talkhistoricity-wiki-and-other-mythicism-related-news.html

          In case it is useful I’ve set up a new site on their successor:

          https://historicaljesus.fandom.com/wiki/Talk_Historicity_Wiki

          • John MacDonald

            Neil Godfrey called you out again today to provide a defense of your discipline. He’s such a stalker, lol. See: https://vridar.org/2019/12/29/questions-for-james-mcgrath-seeking-understanding/

          • It is the old mythicist tactic – ask once again for things that have been provided before. For example: https://celsus.blog/2015/01/05/when-do-contemporary-sources-matter/

            See also chapter 1 of this textbook: https://amzn.to/2MEHHzo

          • Leigh Sutherland

            Good day to you Dr McGrath, I have used Matthew Ferguson’s Blog as a fantastic resource for many years (even when it was Adversus Apologetica), what would be the point you are trying to make as per the reference to the Celsus blog as above, what tactic are the mythicist’s using being answered by said blog. Not trying to nit pick, just interested.

          • Above all, the fact that mythicists regularly denigrate things like the allegedly long time between writing and earliest manuscript of texts relevant to the historical Jesus, clearly unaware of the date of our earliest manuscripts of other works that they’re perfectly fine with historians using for historical purposes.

          • David M

            I notice that Neil Godfrey wants to make an issue of the late dating of the Gospels. Let’s see how the argument might work. Suppose that a primitive form of the Gospel story was invented in AD 30. The story is told and retold (and embellished) for forty years and more before being set down in writing. By that time no one can remember how the story originated. This scenario runs into trouble with Paul’s letters, which show that people believed the story well before the Gospels were written.

            Perhaps we can get round that problem by supposing that Paul’s Jesus was actually a celestial being whose existence could not be verified by people living at the time. But if we do that, we run into a different problem. Now we can no longer exploit the (alleged) ignorance of the Gospel writers concerning events of forty or more years ago. The authors may not be authorities on AD 30, but they would certainly know about the recent history of the Jesus movement. They would know whether or not the Gospel portrait of Jesus was completely at odds with what people had originally believed.

            Godfrey’s comments are typical of the mythicist approach. He doesn’t think through the implications of his argument.

          • John MacDonald

            Yes, I always said it was odd: The theory that Christianity started out as a mythicist cult, but the reality that none of mythicist Christianity, even the churches Paul founded, even survived as a heresy – vanishing over such a short period of time.

          • Ocelot Aardvark

            Perhaps they were “Raptured”. – Matthew 16:28

    • rationalobservations?

      You reference authentic and original texts and inscriptions that mention “Jesus” but no trace of any has been discovered by those who have searched and researched the origin of the “Jesus” mythology that appeared in the oldest 4th century prototype bible or the very different bibles written by men since the 4th century.

      Making dishonest claims and/or recycling baseless propaganda does not advance the cause of the rapidly declining cults and sects of religion.

  • arcseconds

    Your second paragraph gets at part of what’s going on. People have no idea of what is normal with regards to transmission of ancient texts (I was quite surprised when I found out how late our oldest manuscripts for Plato are!) , or for that matter of what was normal as far as documentary evidence surrounding historical individuals.

    I think people end up projecting thoroughly modern presuppositions as to what evidence they expect are.

    Another factor is the ‘won’t be fooled again!’ phenomenon, where an overly sceptical attitude is taken, and what the person in question takes to be iron-clad evidence is demanded. That alongside the modern presuppositions of the sort of documentary evidence you’d expect to have for a historic individual mean that the evidentiary bar is put very high. What is lost here is how little evidence you really need to conclude someone existed. A friend of mine pointed out that if a misdirected letter arrives in his mailbox, he presumes the addressee really exists!

    Also, it seems that some of the more vocal people on this issue have trouble (perhaps subconsciously) distinguishing between the historic Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels. I’ve witnessed both Price and Fitzgerald suddenly start ranting about someone who raises the dead and walks on water.