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:
Since there seems to be some confusion:
The opposite of mythicism (Jesus was a myth, not a real person) isn’t biblical inerrancy.
The opposite of mythicism is the study of the historical Jesus.
— Laura Robinson (@LauraRbnsn) December 9, 2019
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: