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:

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