February 5, 2012

“Recently one theologian who teaches an undergraduate historical Jesus class recommended to me two works on historiographical methods. When I quoted back to him key sections that contradicted the most fundamental processes of historical Jesus scholars he was enraged. I was misrepresenting them. It turned out that he was the one who had simply failed to grasp the clear, black and white points that these texts made about the need for establishing provenance and external controls — and that as a consequence the whole historical Jesus model of these scholars rests on circularity and mere assumption that there was a historical Jesus to study at all. This pitfall does not face the historical studies in other areas of history simply because historians have long established their foundations with documentary resources that are grounded in the stability of known provenance and external controls.”

Neil Godfrey, in a post entitled “Hypocritical Christ-mythers:

Cameron’s response to Neil Godfrey at Vridar — & my response back”

I thought that regular readers of this blog would get a kick out of this. It is stuff like this that has forced me to give up on attempting to interact with Neil Godfrey as though he were a sane/honest individual who knows how to interact with other human beings. Those who have actually read the exchange he is referring to, however, may enjoy reflecting on the vast differences between what actually transpired, and Godfrey’s representation of it on his own blog.

December 29, 2011

Paul-Louis Couchoud has something in common with other mythicists: he was not a historian. But Couchoud also has something in common with the kinds of mythicists that could, at one point, be taken seriously: he died more than half a century ago. He thus formulated his ideas and wrote about them before the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices transformed our understanding of phenomena such as early Judaism and ancient Gnosticism forever. So it is not surprising that mythicists from today like to focus on such figures, much like creationists who focus their discussions about science on Darwin and an earlier point in our knowledge rather than our current one.

(Even in an earlier time, of course, it was possible to find fault with Couchoud’s arguments. See Maurice Goguel’s Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History? available online.)

Neil Godfrey has been blogging through Couchoud’s views. He starts with an overview, and mentions the Mandaeans, whom Couchoud made reference to. The treatment of this topic shows the selectively critical nature of Couchoud’s endeavor and mythicism in general. How is it that texts written within decades of the life of Jesus cannot have useful information gleaned from them about the historical Jesus, but texts which in their present form are at least several centuries later are trusted to provide useful information? How is it that for mythicists the fact that our earliest copies of the Gospels are a couple of centuries after their composition is a major problem, but Mandaean texts can be cited without any cautionary remarks even though our oldest manuscripts of them are from a mere few centuries before our time?

In another post Godfrey focuses on Couchoud’s belief that the earliest Gospel was Marcion’s, an idea that is not found persuasive by the vast majority of scholars for good reason. Unless one is going to use the mythicist tool of selective skepticism to also redate the earliest church fathers, then we encounter in our earliest Christian sources a recognition of a relationship to Judaism that is ambiguous, and a desire to make a case for Christians as the true heirs of the Jewish Scriptures while viewing Jews as having misunderstood them. Why would a movement that emerged out of Marcionism ever reach that point? If one is willing to simply assert things and use the sort of infinitely flexible creative imagination that mythicists attribute to the Gospel authors, then perhaps one can find this plausible. But if one is trying to account for all the evidence within a plausible framework that makes sense in the setting in history that serves as their context, then this view simply fails to account for the evidence or make good sense of it.

The second post posits that the next step in the development is a Gospel of Basilides. As I mentioned earlier, we now know far more about Gnosticism than anyone did in Couchoud’s time, and such information really needs to be part of any discussion of ancient Gnosticism. But even without such considerations, it is simply implausible to make an argument based on selective skepticism. Recent scholarship has approached not only early church fathers’ claims about Jesus and the Gospels, but also their information about early Gnostics, with appropriate skepticism. Simply accepting some of their claims uncritically while being excessively skeptical about others is a method for getting them to conform with one’s preconceived ideas, not for getting at historically reliable information.

Godfrey follows with a description of Couchoud’s views on the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. Mention is made of Christians from Jewish backgrounds, but no attempt is made to explain how Jews would be won over to Marcion’s anti-Jewish Gospel. If, on the other hand, there were from the outset Jewish Christians who did not have Marcion’s view of the Jewish God – or perhaps even if there were not – then one must ask, whatever order the Gospels may have been written in, which of the various views found in sources allegedly written within decades of one another preserves more historical information. Despite the popularity of doing so in mythicism when it suits their agenda, it makes no sense to assume that what was written first always provided accurate information, nor that what was written within a matter of decades could not have independently preserved information.

Godfrey also takes a weak stab at commenting on my YouTube video. He simply asserts that it makes more sense to view early Christian information about Jesus as pure fiction than as the result of attempts to deal with the cognitive dissonance of someone believed to be the Messiah being crucified. But of course, since there is no need for a mythicist either to be consistently critical or to come up with a scenario that fits the necessary historical context, one can simply say that these views were originally fiction, and ignore the fact that our earliest sources reflect a movement which called people to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, who had been crucified and raised from the dead so that now the final resurrection of all human beings and the last judgment must be near. The theological claims of early Christians can obviously be disputed, but that is a separate matter, the point here being that they presuppose, when understood against the background of the Jewish concepts of their time, such as “anointed one” and “resurrection,” a historical Jesus of some sort.

The biggest flaw with mythicism, in my view, is its selective skepticism. Gnostic sources, such as the Mandaean texts, may indeed contain traditions that take us back much earlier than the likely date of their composition. But in order to recover such information, one needs to treat those sources with the same skepticism and critical tools of inquiry that are used to seek information about a historical Jesus – which is the only way of determining whether there was likely to have been one. And if one adopts the hyperskeptical stance that mythicists take towards the earliest Christian sources (when it suits them to do so) and applies it to the church fathers and to Gnostic sources, nothing that is historically useful will be found in those either.

But for those who know what history does and how it works, it is already clear that selective ultra-skepticism and selective uncritical acceptance are not a means of getting at reliable historical information, but of spinning history to appear as one wishes it to, in accordance with one’s already-existing views.

March 6, 2010

“Exegesis of a narrative cannot magically conjure up evidence for the historical reality of the narrative…Sanders is merely attempting to calculate what narrative details are more or less likely to make sense of the larger plot, given the assumption that the narrative originated largely from “traditions” going back to an historical Jesus. Historicity itself is an assumption.”

I was tempted to not cite the source and ask readers connected with academia what grade they would give to a student who wrote this, in terms of the understanding of how historians use texts when no other sources are available, and in terms of E. P. Sanders’ use of the “criteria of authenticity.” But I don’t think it would be fair to get others entangled in these seemingly interminable discussions under false pretenses. But I think the quote speaks for itself, and doesn’t really need further comment.

February 11, 2011

Neil Godfrey has a “response” to a recent post of mine on mythicism. He equates what seem to me to be distinct scenarios. On the one hand, we have something that is well-documented and much-studied, the drawing on literary prototypes in storytelling. This is what Allison’s study (which Godfrey cites) highlights in Matthew’s Gospel, taking the already-existing figure of Jesus, and traditions about his teachings, and drawing on earlier stories about Moses to highlight similarities and differences between the two.

On the other hand, we have what mythicists claim took place, which is the invention of a brand new fictional central character in a wide range of stories, based on supposed sources of inspiration in Scripture the connections with which are sometimes so slim that they are akin to claiming that a story of a thief stealing gold from a vault was inspired by “Goldilocks.”

I assume that all non-mythicist readers, and perhaps even some mythicists who are coming to their senses, will have no difficulty seeing that the abundant examples we have of the first sort of instance – creating new stories from Scriptural inspiration and/or retelling traditional material in dialogue with Scripture – do not constitute evidence that anyone invented anyone – much less a crucified Messiah – entirely or almost entirely from raw ingredients in the Jewish Bible.

Apart from illustrating confusion between these two scenarios, I didn’t find anything new or helpful in the post – just the same old claims, and the same old quotes from the same old sources.

February 10, 2011

In a “response” to a recent post of mine about mythicism, Neil Godfrey illustrates well the very problem and double-standard that my post was intended to highlight.

The post begins by stating and commenting on the principle which was the focus of my post: “If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.”

Whether this describes the situation in the case of the Gospels or not is perhaps best left to one side for now. Certainly the Gospels are not without a context provided both by Paul’s earlier epistles and by their reception history.

Be that as it may, Godfrey goes on to write the following:

But that does not always mean we are necessarily left in the clouds.

We can analyze the story itself to understand its “properties”. What is it made up of? What sort of story is it?

If we find that it consists of bits and pieces from other literature available and probably known to the author, and even appears to reflect structures and themes of other narratives, then, all things being equal, we have some grounds for thinking the story has been borrowed from those other narratives.

The idea that a piece of literature may consist of “bits and pieces from other literature” seems to reflect the view of the Gospels, so popular at Vridar as well as in the writings of John Shelby Spong, as works composed by taking details from stories in the Jewish Scriptures and elsewhere and using them to compose a new story.

The subject of genre is then discussed, with a helpful acknowledgment that even some novels from this period were fictional accounts of real person. Godfrey draws the following preliminary conclusion:

So the short answer to the title question is that story alone must leave us neutral on the question of historicity. Literary analysis, however, can help us understand the nature of the narrative, and from that we may find clues that lead us one way or the other on the question.

So far, so good. One important question we need to ask at this stage is whether the alleged genre of taking tidbits of stories and turning them into completely new stories was in fact a genre in this period in history.

In fact, what is being described seems to have emerged through a process akin to “Chinese whispers,” in which something that scholars have proposed gets turned into something slightly different at each step of the way, the further you get from its origin and from a scholarly setting.

There certainly are stories in the Gospels where it is possible that Christians, lacking information about aspects of Jesus’ life, turned to the Jewish Scriptures to fill in the gaps. Thus, as John Dominic Crossan often puts it, we may be dealing with “Scripture historicized.” The inclusion of details in the Gospel crucifixion accounts that say, in essence, “X occurred to fulfill what is written in Scripture Y” could represent this. Even in these cases, however, we are often uncertain whether we are dealing with “history Scripturalized” or “Scripture historicized.” In some instances, at least, the former is at least as good of a candidate for what is going on, with Christians turning to their Scriptures not to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Jesus’ life, but in an attempt to account for uncomfortable details in what they did know about him, attributing them to a predetermined divine plan.

But even if we were certain in such instances that they are all cases of “Scripture historicized,” does this lead naturally to the view that all the stories in the Gospels are examples of this? Hardly. There are three main issues:
  1. First, Spong, Price, Godfrey and others seem to think that this approach to composition is in fact what the rabbis called “Midrash.” It is not. It does not resemble what scholars call midrash, nor does it fit with any known compositional technique for creating entire stories evidenced in any ancient literature with which I am familiar.
  2. Second, they seem to think that if you can find a slight similarity with another story, then it automatically becomes preferable to treat the later story as an invention based on the earlier one. That might not follow even if the similarities were clear; it certainly does not when the alleged parallels and points of contact are few and unconvincing.
  3. Finally, to the extent that this approach to composition may fit some details in the Gospels, this compositional technique makes sense as part of Christians’ attempt to fill in their knowledge of Jesus from Scripture, which they considered an authoritative source. But it makes much less sense as a means of creating a purely fictional Jesus taking inspiration from earlier literature.

And of course, before the Gospels were written, we already had individuals like Paul expressing the belief that Jesus was the anointed son of David and had been crucified. Thus far, mythicists have not managed to successfully account for or distract attention from potentially the biggest problem for mythicism: it is much easier to account for belief in Jesus as the crucified anointed descendant of David in terms of a historical individual who was believed by his followers to be the Messiah and who was crucified, than in terms of fiction-writing. Because it is not simply the telling of a story about a crucified messiah that needs to be accounted for. It is the creation of such stories by an originally Jewish movement that was seeking to persuade other Jews that this crucified man was the awaited Davidic anointed one. Simply saying that “sometimes people come up with strange ideas” doesn’t make the mythicist account seem more probable than that of mainstream historical study.

Before concluding, let me paraphrase a remark in a recent comment. I’ll call the principle it describes “Godfrey’s Razor” in honor of my conversation-partner in this post. The principle is this: “All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best one, unless a more complicated one supports mythicism.” That seems to me an apt description, when someone treats the creation of a fictional story (by an extremely convoluted process not evidenced outside of the minds of a few modern authors and completely at odds with what little we know about ancient compositional practices) as preferable to and more persuasive than historical processes that are familiar from other comparable cases, and fit more simply and straightforwardly with the evidence.

December 11, 2017

I decided to break what had been one very long post about two mythicists into two shorter ones (although I will be the first to admit that neither is particularly short, which gives you a sense of why I thought it best to split them). The first was yesterday’s about Richard Carrier.

Today’s takes its point of departure from discussions around  another mythicist, Earl Doherty. Jonathan Bernier pointed out (in a post which he subsequently deleted, but which Neil Godfrey nevertheless chose to comment on at length) that mythicists are really engaged in Christology, offering a reinterpretation of early Christian sources in a manner that is theological rather than historical. And so that is much more readily viewed as a work of reform rather than an attack, in the same sense that Luther attacked various authorities and practices, but in the interest of re-envisaging and changing.

Matthew Green made a similar point in a comment on the blog a while back, suggesting that, while mythicism is at odds with what most Christians think, to the extent that many Christians are open to revising their views in light of evidence, if mythicism did turn out to be true, all that would likely happen would be a shift to focusing on learning what the celestial Jesus rather than the historical one taught. Indeed, for many Christians Jesus is a celestial figure who still speaks to them in the present day. For atheists to try to use mythicism as though it were an argument against Christianity makes no sense.

Since Jonathan Bernier’s blog post disappeared, and yet his points are always interesting and insightful, let me share a couple of great quotes from his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus after the Demise of Authenticity: Toward a Critical Realist Philosophy of History in Jesus Studies. This first one is from p.57 n.6:

Bernier footnote

This quote from p.160 also encapsulates his point in the book as a whole, as well as in relation to mythicism:

Bernier quote

I should also perhaps mention what an individual that I recently had to ban here sent me by email. It wasn’t an apology for his behavior, but just more of the same (although nothing as bad as what he has aimed at Larry Hurtado on his blog). His email including the following:

As to your response to Carrier, you said,

“If so, then what would it indicate if Paul singled out James as ‘the brother of the Lord’ in a letter in which he also mentions other Christians?”

Which he answers in his book: Paul did that to distinguish James in 1:19 from James the apostle. Alternately, if we assume that James the apostle was the “James, brother of the Lord” mentioned in 1:19, then a biological interpretation is falsified by the fact that Luke-Acts knows of no biological brother James who held an active role in the church.

This is typical of mythicists – being satisfied with any counterclaim without paying attention to or even giving much thought to the details. In this example, for instance, isn’t it obvious to everyone else, and not only to me, that if “brother of the Lord” means “Christian” then it is no more useful as a way of contrasting one Christian James from another who happens to be an apostle, than it is useful as a way of distinguishing between the James and Peter mentioned in Galatians?

See also the chain of bait-and-switch reasoning recently at Vridar on the same topic, with no attention to details, dates, or even references to or citations of primary sources where those would be crucial.

Jonathan Bernier also wrote a response to Joseph Atwill’s nonsense making an appearance in the news once again a while back. So too did Eldad Keynan.

See also Simon Joseph’s recent post about the crucifixion as historical bedrock and as icon.

Craig Evans’ debate with Richard Carrier from last year will likely also be of interest, the video of which is online.

Also relevant is Larry Hurtado’s discussion of being a Christian and a scholar:

Despite what some have claimed, Amazon’s Echo is not a mythicist.

Finally, mythicists are among those who are prone to misuse the term “refuted,” and thus could benefit from the linked article.

December 10, 2017

Larry Hurtado has written an excellent blog post in which he shows that Richard Carrier is simply not telling the truth, not accurate, and not persuasive on a number of topics central to his claims about Jesus. Here is a sample excerpt:

The “mythical Jesus” view doesn’t have any traction among the overwhelming number of scholars working in these fields, whether they be declared Christians, Jewish, atheists, or undeclared as to their personal stance. Advocates of the “mythical Jesus” may dismiss this statement, but it ought to count for something if, after some 250 years of critical investigation of the historical figure of Jesus and of Christian Origins, and the due consideration of “mythical Jesus” claims over the last century or more, this spectrum of scholars have judged them unpersuasive (to put it mildly).

Hurtado then posted a follow-up that sought to respond to a post on Neil Godfrey’s blog Vridar. Hurtado also blogged about the phenomenon of mythicism a few days earlier (kindly mentioning my efforts to address the topic in the process). In that post he wrote:

Despite Carrier’s evangelistic prophecies that the scholarly world will come to see that he, though now a voice in the wilderness, is correct in judging Jesus of Nazareth to be a mythical invention, there is in fact no sign of fulfillment. He is a paid advocate of his views (having been hired to produce these books), not a disinterested or dispassionate assessor of things. He is not expert in the very subjects on which he writes in these books, and his mishandling of the evidence shows this all to clearly. I conclude that, in so far as scholarly judgment of the matter is concerned, Carrier’s often-strident efforts will be judged as the last hurrah of the “mythicist” claim, although internet die-hards are likely to remain doggedly committed to it.

One of the reasons young-earth creationism is viewed as pseudoscience is that it makes false predictions. As religion, of course, that viewpoint should perhaps lead to stoning according to biblical law. But simply in terms of science, the fact that antievolutionists have been declaring evolution a “theory in crisis” since even before Charles Darwin’s time tells us a lot. When mythicists do the same in relation to the fields of history and biblical studies, should the same principles not apply?

Rather than continue as I originally planned with a very long post that also discusses another mythicist, stay tuned for more on this subject tomorrow. In the meantime, if you still want more on this subject and can’t wait, Hurtado posted another entry on his blog on this topic that I have not linked to above, to which Carrier has responded to Hurtado with one of his classic lengthy posts full of accusations, but which never does anything that might render mythicism plausible.  Hurtado  then responded to another one of Carrier’s claims, and Carrier then offered the most hilarious post of his that I ever read, in which he offers imagined conversations between himself and Hurtado which are supposed to show how Hurtado would respond if he were a “real historian” – in essence, the point is that if Hurtado were a “real historian” he would concede that Carrier is right!

Deane Galbraith has also joined the conversation. I will not try to guess how much of Carrier’s book Hurtado has read, but I am quite sure that there is no academic who has not stopped reading a book without finishing it because the part they had read was so atrocious, they could determine on that basis that the rest was not worth reading…

December 26, 2014

Valerie Tarico interviewed me, as well as Raphael Lataster and Neil Godfrey – for an article she wrote for The Humanist. The article’s title is “Savior? Shaman? Myth? Ink Blot? Why Christianity’s Main Man Remains So Elusive.” Since the article needed to be trimmed for publication, Tarico has posted the complete full-length version on her blog.

Have a read of it/them, and let me know your thoughts!

Image via Valerie Tarico


February 14, 2014

Diglotting has posted a brief review of Maurice Casey’s latest book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, which is now available for purchase for Kindle, and will be available in print form in the next few months.

I had the opportunity to read an earlier draft of the manuscript, and am looking forward to seeing the finished product. I wrote in notes I took at that time, “There is much here that is simply important evidence regarding historicity and development of material in the Gospels, and their date, which itself deserves to be published. Mythicism is the unifying thread, but the book works well as a general overview of mainstream historical Jesus studies in relation to popular misconceptions.” And so the book is one that everyone interested in the historical figure of Jesus ought to read, and not only those interested in debates about his historicity.

Here’s the full version of the blurb review I provided to the publisher:

In his latest book, Maurice Casey brings his great expertise in historical Jesus studies to bear on the phenomenon of mythicism, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Although mythicism is universally rejected by professional historians, it is surprisingly popular on the internet and in a small number of self-published books. Casey’s book offers both the scholarly detail needed to deal with the subject seriously, and the sarcastic wit appropriate to the character of the phenomenon. The result is not only informative but also entertaining.

Despite dealing thoroughly and persuasively with the subject, it is probably too much to hope that Casey’s scholarly treatment of mythicism will lay the matter of the existence of the historical Jesus to rest, any more than scientists addressing young-earth creationist claims have managed to bring about the end of that pseudoscience. But Casey’s book will provide for the realm of historical Jesus study what biologists have provided in relation to evolution: a clear and sufficiently detailed explanation of what mainstream scholarly conclusions are, why and how they are reached, and why professionals in the field all but universally find the denialist alternative not merely unpersuasive, but failing to even implement the appropriate methods of scholarly investigation and argument.

Yet this book will also be of great interest even to those who couldn’t care less about what internet cranks think. In the process of responding to their claims, Casey offers everything one might hope for in an overview of the methods, sources, and conclusions of historical Jesus study. And so whatever one’s interest in the historical figure of Jesus, I highly recommend this book.

The book addresses the claims of mythicists like Earl Doherty directly and in detail. Doherty is the person whose brand of mythicism is behind the views of people like Richard Carrier and Neil Godfrey. It is my impression that those claims are dealt with in this book more effectively and persuasively than they have been anywhere else at any time in the past, including by me. While I’ve blogged about this subject in some detail, Casey has devoted the time to produce a full-fledged monograph, worthy of publication by a major academic publisher. And so this is an important book, and I look forward to the discussions that it will generate.

October 25, 2013

Hemant Mehta explains his view on the historical Jesus, miracles, and what the implications are for atheism:

Interestingly, even Neil Godfrey agrees with Mehta on one point, that if you aren’t an expert in the field of historical Jesus studies, then it is better to be agnostic about it rather than hold firmly to a view you cannot defend. Of course, Godfrey is wrong about Ehrman’s book being the first tackling of mythicism in the field, just as he tends to be wrong about most things related to this topic.

And for the latest from an atheist scholar tackling the arguments of mythicists, Maurice Casey’s book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? is due out next year. Having read the manuscript in advance of publication, I can highly recommend it, as of interest not only to those interested in mythicism, but anyone interested in the historical figure of Jesus.

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