Mythicism, Isnads, and Pseudepigrapha

Mythicism, Isnads, and Pseudepigrapha January 20, 2020

OK, let me begin by confessing that the pun that I originally had in mind to make in the title of this post was terrible. I toyed with the idea of calling it “Mythisnadicism.” There are probably only a very small number of people who would have guessed that I was planning to bring together the subject of mythicism, and the way mythicists contrast the Gospels to other Greco-Roman historical texts, and the isnads of the Islamic hadith tradition. Now you know, and you’ll surely agree that I was wise to opt for a different title, even if this one may have done no better a job of cluing many readers in to what it would be about. But now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on with it. But first, let me share this perfect tweet from Laura Robinson:

To be fair, there are two ways of being “opposite.” One is to move to the opposite end of an ideological spectrum in ways that are just as misguided, unconcerned with facts, and ideologically motivated as those on the opposite end. Another is to seek to move to the opposite end of the spectrum (or as close as one can) from pursuing ideologically-motivated apologetics. One can be a fundamentalist for a diametrically opposed viewpoint, or one can be diametrically opposed to fundamentalism. In one of these senses, mythicism is the mirror opposite of biblical inerrancy. In the other sense, both mythicism and biblical inerrancy are the opposite of the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. But that’s a lot of words, and Laura Robinson’s tweet makes the point really well and much more succinctly.
Now back to the main theme of this post. I’ve heard mythicists say that the reason they feel one can rely on various Roman and other ancient sources for historical purposes, but not the Gospels even to a limited extent, is the fact that the former credit the sources they draw on while the latter do not. This contrast is at best oversimplified. It is certainly true that some ancient historical sources indicate not only when they are drawing on an earlier author, but also what the source is and who wrote it. Josephus, another Jewish historian, regularly fails to explicitly indicate his sources and their authors, although he sometimes does so. We are certainly right to emphasize the importance of attribution and citation in the present day, now that we have developed systems and technologies that make it more straightforward to do so and sought to create a culture that values doing so. It is not clear, however, that it is right to treat non-European sources that failed to jump on the citation bandwagon from the very beginning in a dismissive or even derisive manner. Where Josephus can be checked against other sources, we find that he did indeed consult what others before him wrote. And yet like all ancient historians and authors in general, he isn’t even always consistent with himself, never mind with others. But at any rate, there is no reason to completely dismiss ancient Jewish writers (apart from antisemitism or hatred of Abrahamic religions), whether it be the Gospel authors or Josephus that is in mind. We can use them critically, appreciating the information they provide while recognizing that it is not always reliable and certainly not unbiased.

As an aside, it is odd that mythicists accept the consensus of historians that the Gospels do not stem from eyewitnesses, and then reject their conclusion that the Gospels nonetheless include information that historians can use. It is simply not the case that ancient authors tend to mention which of their contemporaries they interviewed or otherwise derived information from. To make a fair comparison, if the Gospels are as early as we think they are, then it would be surprising if they named every individual who told them a story about things they had seen or heard.

Having said that, let me bring the hadith and extracanonical Gospels into the picture. The former emphasize the chain of transmission between the most recent direct source and the point of origin. The latter often claim to derive from apostles and other eyewitnesses. In both instances, historians are more skeptical of hadith and Gospels which claim to stem directly from authoritative sources. A claim to derive information from a particular source, directly or indirectly, may itself be authentic or fabricated. Some of those who study hadith adopt the principle that the more impressive the chain of transmission, the less reliable it is.

My point in all this is that explicitly claiming to derive something from an eyewitness or a known written source may be either a truthful claim or a false one aimed at deceiving readers. A failure to explicitly cite sources may indicate a number of things as well, including different assumptions about appropriate writing and literary norms, but also either that one lacks credible sources, or that the things written are so well-known for the most part and so widely attested that there is no need or motivation to attribute them to one specific individual or another.

The mythicist claim that the Gospels are thoroughly untrustworthy – or more ridiculously, that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical – are really problematic. Perhaps the best way to put it is to ask those who give credence to mythicists this: Why trust modern-day mythicists and their claims about what is important, what is valuable, what is reliable, or anything else, while giving no credence even to the broad outlines of what various ancient authors have written? Is it anti-religious bias? Chronological snobbery? A preference for their conclusions? I ask these questions because there is nothing in what they write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy. And so the same questions that apply to ancient sources, apply to modern ones as well. If it is the fact that they (well, some of them at any rate) mention scholars and sources regularly, then that is also true of mainstream scholars who conclude there was a historical Jesus, and it is true of conservative Christian apologists who are demonstrably untrustworthy even when they provide ample citations. And so my appeal to Jesus-mythicists is the appeal I’d make to any and all conspiracy theorists. By all means be skeptical – but be even-handedly skeptical, including of those you’re inclined to be persuaded by, and most importantly, of yourself.

For more at this intersection, here’s something from Craig Evans about ideologically-motivated attempts to deny that there was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the first century. See also:

Mythicism and Diametrically Opposed Ideological Propaganda

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Iain Lovejoy

    Nothing exists or has existed that contradicts my theory, unless you can produce photographs, and prove that it is impossible that any technology exists or could exist that could fake them. And you are not a “so called expert”. And you have never at any stage been shown to hold a contrary theory. And you can prove you are not lying right now.
    If you can’t, there is no evidence whatsoever to contradict the Internet rumour that got passed round my friends in a chat room, and you are completely naive not to believe it, and just believing stuff without evidence because you have been told it is true. Unlike perspicacious and cynical me who can never be fooled by anyone.
    © Every conspiracy theory ever.

  • Joe Wallack

    Yeah, who to trust. Someone who thinks Jesus did not exist or someone who thinks Jesus was resurrected? Which is more likely?

    • One is inherently unlikely. The other is simply at odds with the available evidence. Why is one way of being unlikely, wrong, and/or irrational somehow justified by the other? That’s precisely the point of this post, and you seem to have missed it completely…

      • Leigh Sutherland

        James, do you think the Gospel writers were writing what they believed to be historical.

        • Like most ancient authors, that wasn’t an exclusive concern. I think that Matthew knew, for instance, when he was inventing an infancy story aimed at presenting Jesus as like Moses. But if he had thought in our terms, he would have believed that he was writing a story about a historical figure that took liberties, engaged in symbolic and creative storytelling to convey his convictions about this historical figure, and so on.

    • Chris H

      Their beliefs have nothing to do with whether or not their methods are sound. The reality is that Jesus Skeptics rarely, if ever, have a coherent methodology and, so, are not trustworthy.

  • John MacDonald

    Mythicists seem a lot like many atheists who just naturally assume their position is the more intellectually honest and rigorous one compared to their opponents . Neil Godfrey just posted this in a comment:

    — “Lataster certainly does a decent job of demonstrating that biblical scholarship in relation to historical Jesus studies is in a very large measure a nonsense pursuit whose methods would be laughed out of an undergraduate’s course in a genuine historical discipline. Compare what serious historians have had to say about biblical studies about Jesus and they say the same. Even professors and other academics of some reputation in other fields can look and engage at enough of a level to know how fallacious their methods are. I do not mean that they are fools. But with respect to those who do publish about the historical Jesus they are very largely blind to their groundless assumptions and have a very poor or even no understanding of the most fundamental basics about how historians actually approach data and sources and determine “historical facts”. They live in a bubble with their own rules that are circular — and some of them have the honesty and insight to acknowledge their methods are circular — but they admit they don’t know what else to do!”

  • Chris H

    The mythicist arguments I just cannot find convincing anymore. I use to be one, but thanks to your work and a few others, I shifted my views. Basically, what I found was that mythicism works so long as you do not scratch the surface or dig too heavily into methodology. Which this is also a shame, since the question “Did Jesus Exist” is not inherently a bad one, nor is it unscholarly. It is something that historians should ask and should definitely talk about, but it seems like mythicists are more attempting to push an agenda. It is something that I have found rather problematic in their work, but one can also detect the biases.

    My current project is I am writing a book on the History of the Christ Myth Theory, and what I have found is that, almost universally, it is tied to either political, religious, or antireligious agendas and/or movements.

    For example, the Deutscher Monistenbund (a group that existed up until Nazi Germany) was a religious organization based on Haeckel’s Monist religion, which, basically, eventually necessitated in the minds of its adherents that Jesus could not have existed as a historical person. This bias was built into Arthur Drews’ material. Other members, like Albert Kalthoff, were coming from an extremist Hegelian background with figures like Bruno Bauer influencing his work. He then published his work through an antireligious press.

    Meanwhile, other figures like J. M. Robertson and L. Gordon Rylands were associated with the Rationalist movements and presses, which very rarely would publish or stock historicist material (the exception being basically F. C. Conybeare).

    In Soviet Russia, mythicism basically became state dogma due to Arthur Drews’ work becoming known to Vladimir Lenin (despite popular opinion, like the errant histories provided by Van Voorst and McClymond, there is no documentation to suggest that Marx and Engels were mythicists). This was also the doctrine of the League of Militant Godless, who would constantly debate the topic with priests (often losing causing them mass humiliation, which they would then take out on their religious opponents in more extreme ways). It actually became such a hot button issue in the Soviet Union that the atheist leagues organized antireligious “universities” where they would attempt to indoctrinate people into mythicism and train them in debate rhetoric so they could battle their religious counterparts.

    All of the earliest samples of mythicism I have found are also associated with the rationalist and anti-Christian presses and positions. Thus, Thomas Paine, Dupuis (but not Volney who allowed for a historical Jesus to exist behind the myths, contra Ehrman, Van Voorst, and others), Thomas Jefferson (who translated Volney’s work and is known to have corresponded with Paine on how Jesus was just a sun myth), and then others were all mythicists. Dupuis was such out of antireligious and political bias. In addition, I’ve found endless evidence of mythicists in early American and English rationalist periodicals, like The Republican, The Lion, Isis, The Free Inquirer, and The Correspondent.

    It has, throughout history, almost always been ideologically motivated. Only exceptions like G. A. Wells and Thomas Brodie serve as counter examples to this.

    In the most recent timeframe, Carrier’s work was funded and supported by atheist organizations and he is heavily involved in them himself, Raphael Lataster is a verbose antitheist with an agenda to fulfill (and he has always acted like this, he previously, when a Christian, wrote a nonsense book arguing that the Gospel of Matthew wasn’t originally written in Greek), and Dr. Price also primarily publishes and works with atheist organizations and presses to publish his work.

    Then there are other trends, like their almost universal (again save for Brodie and Wells, the latter of whom called this out) acceptance of outdated archetypal criticism from Campbell, Frazer, Raglan, and the rest.

    Basically, they are unconvincing and problematic because they simply have never had any solid or even tenable methods (which is rather funny given how often they project that on Historicist scholarship). And they do not really care to have these methods, mostly, because the vast majority of them are trying to spin their ideological goals, rather than do any kind of honest history. Thus, nonsense categories like “dying-rising gods” are accepted, even though the category is based on nothing but this simplistic reduction of meaning into this horrendous “unity” and often, even when using these, misuse the work of the scholars who designed them (like Drews’ dishonest characterization of Frazer as supporting his thesis, even though Frazer explicitly said his work relied on a historical Jesus).


    -Robert Ackerman, The Myth Ritual School (London: Routledge, 2002)
    -James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: Adonis, Attis, Osiris Part 1, Third Edition, vol. 5 (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1914), p. 311n2
    -Walter P. Weaver, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950 (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1999), pp. 45-72, 300-304
    -Michael McClymond, Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2004), p. 24
    -A. Andreev, “Дискуссия Об Историчности Иисуса Христа В Советском Религиоведении,” Вестник ПСТГУ I: Богословие. Философия 2.58 (2015), pp. 73-88
    -Robert van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 9-10
    -Vladimir Nikiforov, “Russian Christianity,” in Leslie Houlden (ed.), Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003), pp. 749-750
    -Roland Boer, “Friends, Radical and Estranged: Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx,” Religion and Theology 17 (2010), pp. 358-401
    -Kathleen Clarkson and David Hawkin, “Marx on Religion: The Influence of Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach on his Thought and its Implications for the Christian-Marxist Dialogue,” Scottish Journal of Theology 31.6 (1978), pp. 533-555
    -James Thrower, Marxist-Leninist ‘Scientific Atheism’ and the Study of Religion and Atheism in the USSR (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983), pp. 425-426
    -Daniel Peris, Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of Militant Godless (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 178-186
    -Colin Kidd, The World of Mr Casaubon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
    -G. A. Wells, “Stages of New Testament Criticism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 30.2 (1969), pp. 147-160
    -Justin Meggitt, “‘More Ingenious than Learned’? Examining the Quest for the Non-Historical Jesus,” New Testament Studies 65 (2019), pp. 443-460

    • Thanks for this – someone I know is looking into studying the history of mythicism, including its use in Eastern Bloc propaganda. I’m glad this history is poised to get more attention in the coming years!