March 23, 2015

Daniel Gulotta did an interview with Miami Valley Skeptics about mythicism. Not only has he shared links to the recording, but on his blog he has also offered detailed typed responses to questions that he was asked. Here is a sample:

First and foremost, does the evidence indicate a historical Jesus Christ existed? 

Yes. Next question? Okay, I don’t think you will let me off that easily so let me be brief. From studying the letters of Paul, the Gospels, and some other ancient sources, I think it is absolutely clear that Jesus existed. We told from the earliest material that he was executed by Roman officials via crucifixion, the Apostle Paul talks about his brother James and indicates he had other brothers, and Paul also references Jesus’s teaching on divorce in 1 Cor 7:10. From very early tradition we can see a profile of Jesus emerging that places him within 1st century Palestine among historic locations like Capernaum, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. So I think it is obvious that Jesus existed. Really Jesus’s existence isn’t the issue… It’s how much we can know about him that is the issue! But let me explain the question of the historicity of Jesus another way: The man Gaius Octavius, who was born from Atia and later adopted by Julius Caesar, who defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony, was crowned Emperor and changed his name to Augustus Caesar existed. The Augustus Caesar whose father was the god Apollo, who saw the heavens open to welcome the spirit of Julius Caesar joining the ranks of the gods, whose wars and battles were blessed for victory by Mars, and who was a god on earth, did not exist.  As a secular historian and as a non-Christian, I believe the same goes for Jesus. As Bart D. Ehrman puts it, “the Jesus of your Sunday school or stained glasses windows may have not existed, but Jesus did exist. Whether we like it or not.”

Click through to read and/or listen to the rest.

I meant to post on something related to this a while ago, but unfortunately it got neglected as a draft post until now, and so I will include it below. I was dismayed by the fact that Raphael Lataster had the audacity to take his poor online article and make it seem worse. In comments on Facebook, left on my posting of Mike Bird’s response to him, Lataster wrote the following:

Michael Bird’s piece is shockingly bad, such as his defending Ehrman’s and Casey’s recent books on the matter. Those books were rubbish and I have published about that, just not in my 800-page Washington Post ‘article’.

And so I responded:

When one writes an article that isn’t even clearly worded, never mind cogently argued, and then tries to pretend that it is an “800-page” article, it really undermines what little impact one’s vague and insubstantial claim that the work of mainstream scholars is “shockingly bad” and “rubbish.” If you could not tell that your own article fit those categories, why should anyone trust you to accurately apply it to what others have written?

One may disagree with the conclusions of Ehrman or Casey or any other scholar, if one is well-informed enough to do so. But I know that, as an undergraduate student and a conservative Evangelical at the time, I felt justified in dismissing and speaking insultingly about scholars I disagreed with. That is apologetics, and not scholarship. It is an emotional response to the drawing of conclusions that one does not like. Having studied the same fields in greater depth, I may still find some of the conclusions that I dismissed unpersuasive, but I now understand them well enough to know that none of them is “shockingly bad” or “rubbish,” and indeed, some works that I turned to in the interest of supporting my own ideology in that time period are more aptly so labeled.

Lataster wasn’t done yet, and so he asked me this:

James McGrath, do you, like Ehrman and Casey, derive your certainty over Jesus’ historical existence from sources that do not exist?

And here is what I wrote in response:

Raphael Lataster, if you were well-informed and/or serious about history, you would not speak as apologists do about “certainty,” but about probability. The extant sources persuade me that it is likely that there was a historical Jesus. And when mythicists engage in standard tactics of apologists and denialists, distorting the evidence and calling mainstream scholars insulting names, it reinforces one’s sense that the conclusions of mainstream historians and scholars are on target, since if mythicists had a serious case to make, they would not be resorting to such tactics.

If you look into the subject online, you will find that Lataster used to adamantly reject mainstream scholarship in advocating the primacy of the Syriac Peshitta. Now he has shifted his allegiances, but has not moved from fringe denialism to an embracing of the mainstream. It is quite sad to see.

Of related interest, Brandon Smith has an Evangelical response to the latest list of supposed pre-Christian Jesuses that has been circulating.

July 10, 2012

There are several posts around the blogosphere related to topics of conversation here, some of which interact directly with things I’ve written.

First, Fred Clark offers a helpful response to the “anatomically-correct porpoise fetish” objection to the sufficiency of the Golden Rule as a moral principle. The key is to understand it not in a legalistic fashion – which of course is antithetical to the whole spirit of the principle !- but as inviting us not merely to inflict on others what we enjoy, but to ask what they enjoy just as we hope others would do in our own case.

Over at Only a Game, Chris Batemann addresses marriage, unmarriage, and same-sex relationships. Here is a sample:

Unlike many conservatives, I support gay marriage, because unlike most liberals I support the institution of marriage. When two adults are willing, in the face of the infinite mystery and uncertainty of existence, to make a commitment to one another founded upon their mutual love, we should support them and help them celebrate it publically. It should not matter what flesh those two souls inhabit if their love is genuine. It is a bigger injustice to force such lovers to remain unwillingly in unmarriage than to allow them to marry, whatever their respective genders.

Click through to read the whole thing.

On the subject of mythicism, Thomas L. Thompson and I have managed to get a conversation started in the comments section of his recent Bible and Interpretation article.

Craig Keener wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the existence of the historical Jesus. Several other bloggers have mentioned it, including John Byron at slightly more length that others.

Joseph Hoffmann responded to Neil Godfrey about Paul’s language about Jesus having been “born of a woman.” The simplest explanation is still that Paul was merely saying about Jesus something that could be said about any human being.

See too the discussion of Paul-mythicism at Otagosh. UPDATE: See what happens, including a well-placed sci-fi metaphor, when Gavin read further into Detering’s book!

Stuff Fundies Like pointed out that fundamentalism can survive without many things, but not without a cause – an enemy to focus its ire on. This led to some comments by Fred Clark. Fred also notes that there is a glaring anachronism in Genesis 4, where Tubal-Cain is said to have originated the technology of working with bronze and iron. Of course, the transition to the iron age only comes about after Israel has emerged in the land of Canaan. And so this story in its present form is not more ancient than that.


July 21, 2011

Having recently witnessed a proponent of mythicism repeat the same old untruth about “Biblical historians” using different methods than the rest of the guild of historians, I thought it might be time to invite mythicists to do a little experiment.

Pick a figure from ancient history – not Alexander the Great or someone similarly poised to leave tangible evidence behind of his existence from Europe to India, but rather someone that is in important respects more like Jesus in terms of the kind of evidence it is reasonable to expect them to have left behind. Let it be someone you believe actually existed as a historical figure.

What I invite mythicists to do then is approach the evidence for that figure in the same way they do the evidence for the existence of Jesus. Ask the same sorts of skeptical, “what if?” and “what about?” questions that you ask in the case of the New Testament and other early Christian literature.

Check the dates of the earliest manuscripts. If someone cites that author or mentions that person, check the dates of those manuscripts to. Ask whether a particular work might not have been read for entertainment like a comic book.

While it is beyond dispute that there are figures from antiquity who are in some respects better attested than Jesus, I am confident that the methods of mythicism can create uncertainty about them as easily as Jesus. Because, on the one hand, everything in history is open to doubt, although not necessarily reasonable doubt. And, on the other hand, the methods of mythicists are the methods of conspiracy theorists and denialists, and I have yet to see anything that such constituencies cannot doubt, and so there is good reason to think that their methods will work just as well in the case of any historical figure, and not only Jesus.

I realize that this undertaking would require significant time and investigation, but there is really no hurry to finish. This post will still be here. I fully expect that if someone does what I am suggesting here, they will either change their mind about the existence of Jesus – or at least become less dogmatic and prone to ridicule mainstream scholars; or they will become more consistent and be agnostic about ancient history in general, and not treat Jesus differently from most other figures in antiquity.

April 11, 2011

At the suggestion of a regular commenter, I am going to try to save time in the future with commenters who ask the same questions, make the same claims, or otherwise behave in bot-like fashion. This post will contain in as brief form as possible points to make in response to mythicist claims. I presume that there is no need to restate the claims and “arguments” here – in fact, it will be more fun and more interesting to simply wait until the next time the same thing is said, and simply treat it as an order for a “#13”, hold the sarcasm.

It should save a lot of time. Here are the statements/answers/responses. I’ve inserted links from them to posts where I have dealt with a topic in more detail or at least touched on it. I may also add to and expand the “menu” as needed. In case I missed anything, here is a link to a round up of my earlier posts on mythicism.

Bon appetit!

Menu of Responses to Mythicist Claims

#1. Mentioning Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Achiles, Hercules, Ned Ludd, John Frum or anyone else in the same sentence as Jesus does not, in and of itself, constitute an argument. Discussion must also be offered of (a) whether and in what ways the processes that led to the production of stories about each are similar or different, (b) whether the genres are the same/comparable, and (c) how much time has passed between the time in which the stories are set and the one in which they were written.

#2. Don’t ignore the existence prior to the writing of the Gospels of the phenomenon that would in later times come to be referred to as “Christianity.” Suggesting that the Gospels were composed after Paul’s letters but that they were merely intended as fiction for entertainment is not going to work.

#3. “Brother of Jesus” as a phrase in the abstract could theoretically mean any number of things, just as Bill Clinton illustrated that “is” and “sex” mean different things to different people and in different contexts. That doesn’t mean that, in a particular context or usage, their meaning may not be clear or at least clearer. Fundamentalists and mythicists enjoy exploring all the possible meanings of words like “flesh” and “brother,” but within sentences and specific linguistic and grammatical constructions, constraints are placed on meaning. Without context “I’m going to throw the party” could be ambiguous, but when followed by either “of 6 out the window if they don’t decide what to order soon” or “for him at 7pm – but don’t tell him, it’s a surprise,” the ambiguity is removed.

#4. The quest for the historical Jesus and the criteria of authenticity do not presuppose the historicity of Jesus. They seek to demonstrate it in the only way possible. One cannot demonstrate the historicity of Alexander the Great in some abstract ontological fashion separately from all evidence for things he may have said, done, or had inscribed. The same is true in the case of Jesus.

#5. If you think that it is reasonable to expect the same evidence to be left behind by an itinerant exorcist and an emperor, you clearly have yet to begin giving this matter the serious thought it deserves.

#6. If one disqualifies literature as a possible source of historical information, then one must treat Socrates, John the Baptist, Paul, and a great many other figures in the same way as Jesus.

#7. Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed means showing there are good reasons to think that he did, not that it is impossible for anyone to construct a scenario in which it might have been otherwise. Historical study offers probabilities, not absolute certainties.

#8. Raising doubts about historicity is not the same thing as demonstrating ahistoricity. Just asking “what if” questions is not the same thing as trying to construct a positive historical case. That you can imagine a scenario in which Jesus was invented does not constitute proof that your scenario is the most likely based on available evidence, much less that it describes what actually happened.

#9. Take seriously the fact that Paul wrote letters to Christian communities. The letter part is important – writing materials were expensive, and Paul was not writing Gospels. The audience is also important – Paul wrote to people who already had enough knowledge about Jesus to share his belief in him as Messiah and Lord.

#10. Don’t just fixate on things Paul doesn’t say (see #9 – he wasn’t writing a letter). Notice the impression given by what he does say: Born, descended from David, crucified, bled, buried. Little detail about Paul’s views about Jesus as a human figure is not the same as no details at all.

#11. If the fact that pretty much every professional historian and scholar disagrees with you about the historicity of Jesus doesn’t concern you, then you are not giving this subject more serious consideration than the proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design give to biology and evolution. It is true that all the experts can be wrong, but it is also true that rarely, when all the experts are wrong, do people without expertise just happen to be right.

#12. As long as mythicists seem to agree with one another on almost nothing except the ahistoricity of Jesus, please stop treating it as an argument for mythicism that historians agree on little apart from his existence.

#13. If, as Earl Doherty suggests, the “life” and “death” of Jesus occurred completely in a celestial realm, is the same true of the recipients of Ephesians?

#14. Don’t just post advertisements for your book or web site in the comment section. Engage the arguments offered here.

#15. If you have never studied for a degree in history or Biblical studies, or have not made a concerted effort to educate yourself on ancient Judaism, the Greco-Roman world, and early Christianity, then you should not be constructing theories. Even those who have studied at graduate level construct hypotheses only to learn more and find evidence that is incompatible with their hypothesis, and have to revise their thinking. If you construct a theory without a solid broad knowledge of relevant data, you are bound to end up reaching conclusions prematurely – and then defending them against evidence that is pointed out to you.

#16. If you don’t believe it is possible to deduce the historicity of Jesus from a text purporting to be about him, how can you hope to demonstrate his ahistoricity from those same sources?

#17. The view that Jesus may have been thought to have lived in the remote past in relation to Paul’s time doesn’t take seriously his expressions of eschatological imminence.

#18. You may think that you are defending mainstream historical methods against methodologically suspect Bible scholarship. But you aren’t. There’s a reason why, like young-earth creationists citing scientists, you almost never cite recent writings by historians, and cannot actually find more than the odd exception that proves the rule – the rule being that historians agree with mythicists no more than New Testament scholars do.

#19. Just saying “Maybe Tacitus relied on Christian sources” is not the same as making an actual case that Tacitus would have trusted Christian sources or that he had no independent information about Christianity or Jesus.

#20. Doesn’t the fact that mainstream historians consistently find scenarios involving a historical Jesus the most plausible way to account for the evidence we have, coupled with the fact that mythicists consistently fail to provide a more persuasive alternative scenario, itself constitute evidence against mythicism and in favor of mainstream historical scholarship?

#21. The fact that something resembles a story from Scripture doesn’t mean that it was invented on the basis of that story. Applying Scripture to things was a common way of interpreting the significance of people and events, and fitting events into earlier types was a common memory aid. And, once again, that’s not what midrash refers to!

#22. You still have not shown that it is more likely that someone would make up a crucified Davidic Messiah than that such a belief arose as a result of someone thought to be the Messiah being crucified and subsequent efforts to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

#23. Please stop. You’ve said that before and now you’re just wasting my time.

All main courses listed above are served with a side order of further evidence and discussion, and an optional topping of sarcasm.

January 26, 2011

Newcomers to the blog have asked about my views on or engagement with a variety of topics, arguments, and individuals. And so I thought a collection of links to my posts on mythicism thus far might be in order.

Why I Find Mythicism Disturbing in a Nutshell
Scholars Assembling Puzzles: Illustrating Differences Between Scholarly Research and Mythicist Blog Conversations

Mythicism and Mainstream Historical Method
Born of a Woman (Merry Mythmas)
Defining Mythicism
Mythicist Misunderstanding
Jesus Probably Existed: The Argument from Mythicism
David Fitzgerald on the Existence of Jesus
Responding to David Fitzgerald
Jesus – Now With Fewer Miracles! Dialogue with David Fitzgerald, Part 2
Richard Carrier on Bayes’ Theorem, Historical Probability, and the Existence of Jesus

Mythicism, History and Rhetoric
Mythtaken Genre: Epistles and Mythicism
Battling Mythicism in the Heavenly Places
Mythicism vs. the Socratic Historians
Mythicism and John the Baptist
Mythicism, Plausibility and Uncertainty
Is There Evidence For Mythicism
Mythicism and Paradigm Shifts
Mythicist Quote of the Day (Neil Godfrey)

More on Mythicism
More Mythicist-Creationist Parallels: Messiahs, Wisdom and Jesus
Mythicism, Intelligent Design, Courts, and Sports
Once More On The Resemblance Between Mythicism And Creationism
Mythicism and Historicism as Theories (and an Altar Call to Take a Leap of Doubt)
What More Could I Have Said About Paul? The New Perspective, Acts, and Mythicism
Mythicist Eisegesis in 1 Corinthians 11
Hobsbawm vs. the Mythicists

There are also several other attempts at humor (some of which try to make a serious point), mentions of books and links to blog posts by others that could also have been included. But the above posts provide my own perspectives on and engagement with the subject.

January 9, 2011

David Fitzgerald kindly let me know that he has posted a response to my critical post about his talk at Skepticon. In the spirit of dialogue that he expresses in his post, addressing me directly, I will do the same here.

I would like to begin by clarifying that I was not in any sense criticizing you for highlighting scholarship for an audience unfamiliar with it. As you rightly point out, professors do this semester after semester, and if I thought doing so was pointless, I might have to abandon blogging as well as teaching! 🙂  I did, however, feel that you were at once sharing a wealth of scholarly information, and simultaneously suggesting that scholars somehow were foolish enough not to see the conclusion to which these points obviously lead. The truth is that the scholars whom you mention – e.g. Brodie, MacDonald, Maclean – do not see their points about the Gospels being largely fictional as leading to the conclusion that there was no historical Jesus upon whom they were even loosely based – at least, not in anything I’ve read by them, and in what I have read by them, they assert or otherwise indicate the contrary. And for good reason. One of the most popular genres in this period, akin to the “novel”, was a form of historical fiction. It has often been suggested that the various Acts of apostles are in this genre, and they illustrate nicely that they are regularly based on a historical figure while being largely fictional.

If we take our earliest Acts, the Acts of the Apostles attributed to Luke, he clearly gets at least some things about Paul correct in his second volume, since they can be corroborated in Paul’s own letters. Is there really a good reason to think that the situation was entirely different when it comes to the first volume attributed to Luke?

You say that Seneca mentions Judaism. He seems to have done so on one occasion, if the quotation Augustine offers of a work that I do not believe is otherwise extant is anything to go by. But a more germane question for the present discussion would be: Does he mention Pharisees and Saducees? We are discussing the earliest period of Christian origins, during which Jesus and his first followers were a sect within Judaism. To expect them to be mentioned as though they were a separate world religion is anachronistic – an anachronism Augustine seems to be guilty of himself in the passage I linked to.

On the subject of Origen’s mention of Josephus, I think I have interpreted the evidence correctly. He criticizes Josephus for not blaming the calamaties that befell the Jews on their treatment of Jesus, not for never mentioning him. And Origen’s confident statement that Josephus was not a Christian seems to imply that Josephus’ stance on Jesus was clear, rather than that he simply failed to mention him.

If you wish to explain why you consider 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 a disavowal on Paul’s part that Jesus had performed miracles, please do so. It seems to me that you must be reading something into that passage that I simply do not see there.

But I think the most crucial point is that you seem not to grasp the overall difficulty of the mythicist claim. In essence, the claim is made that Paul proclaimed a non-earthly Jesus, and then within a few decades, several authors composed earthly lives of this figure, yet without anywhere indicating that they were introducing a radical change in the setting of the drama. If the next works we had chronologically came from the second or third century anti-Gnostic polemical writings of various Church Fathers, your case might seem at least somewhat plausible. But in fact, what we meet next are anti-docetic writings like those of Ignatius, which do not argue against the view that Jesus existed only in heaven, but that his earthly existence was not capable of suffering and did not involve his being crucified. The stance of the Docetists is at once markedly different from earlier Christian literature (striving to deny or explain away the crucifixion that all earlier sources take for granted), and explicable in terms of the fitting of Jesus into the Greco-Roman concept of divinity. And so whereas the consensus understanding of historians and scholars makes good sense of the trajectories and evolution of the various strands of the Christian tradition, the mythicist view has Paul proclaim a purely mythical Jesus (who nevertheless was born under the Torah, “has become a servant of the circumcision” (Romans 15:8) and was crucified), then has Gospels written which turn him into an earthly figure without apparent controversy, and then later sources turn him into a purely spiritual one again (albeit even there with room for an earthly sojourn). This ordering and interpretation of the material seems to have nothing going for it, nothing whatsoever to make it seem preferable to the consensus view.

I have said in previous interactions with mythicists that the issue is not whether any several pieces of evidence can just perhaps be understood in the way that is being suggested. The question a historian must ask is whether the interpretations are the most probable, and make the best sense of the evidence, and fit together with other information that we have. To make a serious case for mythicism, it is not enough to show that the texts in Paul’s authentic letters that seem to view Jesus as a human figure in history are capable of being interpreted in a manner that is compatible with mythicism, if enough effort and special pleading is introduced. Can you show that they are best understood in this way? If not, then are you not in fact doing with historians and Biblical scholars what creationists do with science – namely taking snippets of legitimate scholarship, and piecing them together into a whole that no one working in the field would find remotely plausible? And if so, then the question that has to be asked next is why you choose to do so. Why dive into a field that is not your area of expertise and try to make a case to a popular audience that disagrees with the experts in that field? Is this something that you would be happy to see done across the board in all areas of scholarly expertise? If not, why single this one out, and what might the implications be of doing so?

Let me end by saying that you do indeed touch on a lot of points that are simply mainstream scholarship, and I am glad that you are seeking to bring that sort of information to a wider audience. But as someone who also has dedicated a lot of time to arguing against creationists, I can say that having individual details correct is not ultimately enough. It is possible to deal correctly and honestly with many details, and yet nevertheless incorporate them into a misleading or unpersuasive theoretical framework. I remain convinced that that is what you are doing with the matter of the historical figure of Jesus.

I can see how Paul’s references to Jesus’ birth, his hostile relations with Jesus’ relatives, and his failure to narrate the story of Jesus in detail may seem to cast reasonable doubt on whether the Jesus of whom he speaks was a historical figure. If that sort of agnosticism were your stance, I might not agree with it, but I would have far greater respect for it than I am able to for the mythicist one. Mythicism does not merely claim uncertainty about historicity, but tries to make a positive case for the invention of a Messiah crucified in a celestial space, and his rapid transformation into a historical figure who walked the earth. I humbly suggest that, just as there are reasons why biologists fit their individual pieces of data into the framework of mainstream evolutionary biology, there is a reason why historians regard the more probable scenario for Christian origins to involve a historical figure of Jesus. And to the extent that you seem to be a proponent of the kind of skepticism that embraces the mainstream skeptical stance adopted by experts in the natural sciences and in history, and not the pseudoskeptical stance of the antivaccination crowd, intelligent design, and conspiracy theories, then I plead with you to make greater efforts to understand why most historians, whether they are atheists, Jews, Christians, or nothing in particular, all seem to find the historians’ and scholars’ consensus persuasive, and mythicism not.

December 31, 2010

The responses both here on the blog and on Facebook to the e-mail I shared yesterday is indicative of the significant number of people who have the experience of finding their faith and religious beliefs changing in response to new information. In many cases, that new information is not so much “new” as new to them. This highlights one negative aspect of fundamentalist attempts to shield people from critical scholarship: when someone from such a background eventually discovers it, instead of merely being part of the natural process of learning and growing, it often triggers some sort of crisis of faith.

On the other hand, finding people of faith who embrace critical scholarship can helpfully counteract at least some of the trauma, although there will usually still be resentment that so much of what we know and understand about the Bible was hidden from you. But hopefully there will also be relief, since a system of thought that is shielded from criticism is particularly dangerous. And however much comfort it may have provided, maturity is more challenging and less clear-cut, but also much richer and more rewarding.

A few blogs have been discussing the experience of doubt, questioning, and changes to beliefs. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza describes it as entering a “black hole.”  DoOrDoNot discusses the experience, and emphasizes that it is better once one is “out of the closet.” And Daniel Kirk mentions his inability to say things “just so.”

De-conversion talks about the reason for leaving a faith tradition as accepting the burden of responsibility for finding and giving answers, rather than passing that responsibility to others who we assume do have the answers.

It is a mistake to think that any of this is something completely new – and Jeri Massi discusses the fundamentalist myth that the good old days were better, a time of faith, while now it is more of a time of doubt and skepticism. Faith and doubt have always existed and co-existed.

The blog Atheist Revolutions asks what the future of faith is, and suggests that more and more people will keep their irrational beliefs and superstitions to themselves and feel embarrassed about them. I am not persuaded that will be so, in the short term at least. But what I found most interesting is that many of the beliefs that an atheist would reject as irrational a liberal Christian most likely would too.

For many liberal Protestants since Paul Tillich wrote his Dynamics of Faith, faith is ultimate concern and is not the same as beliefs, which we may accept or reject, or embrace as mythical expressions of something that we find deeply and profoundly, and yet not literally, “true.”

Whether any specific beliefs are essential in order for our faith to be Christian faith is nevertheless an important topic, and there has been some discussion of this in the blogosphere over recent days. Today, Joel Watts suggested a bare minimum for Christian fellowship based on 1 Corinthians 2:1-2: humility, and Jesus crucified. Many would add the resurrection, but the problem is that historical tools seem incapable of providing the sort of evidence we would need to assert that as a historical event – as the blog Diglotting discussed today, and as I explored in The Burial of Jesus.

For me, the answer to the question someone asked recently about Christian agnosticism is that there not only can be Christian agnosticism, but that in fact that is all we have. There are no people who have actual historical certainty about every historic Christian claim about Jesus. There are only people who have managed to attain a feeling of certainty. But being honest about the uncertainty, even though it can be unsettling to feel it, is not at all something to be ashamed of. Instead of describing it as “agnosticism” we could also call it “honesty.”

It is important to recognize that honest uncertainty is better for you, for one’s faith tradition and for the world than unassailable conviction in spite of evidence to the contrary. But more than that, there is a whole stream of Christian thought, paralleled in other traditions as well, that views God as inherently incapable of being fully known by human beings, much less described in human languages. The mystical religious traditions typically emphasize divine ineffability. And while down the ages the “orthodox” have regularly found the mystics at best a nuisance and at worst a heretical challenge to their emphasis on right beliefs, it may comfort you, even if you have not had a mystical experience yourself, to know that those who have are usually not (at least in their mature years) among those who dogmatically demand assent to propositions, but instead emphasize the symbolic nature of religious language and that it at best points to God, rather than describes God.

So where does that leave us? I think that if one takes Paul Tillich’s definition of God as not merely a being among others but Being itself, then the question of God’s existence pretty much vanishes. There is an ultimate reality. What remains is what one thinks about the nature of Reality/God. And when it comes to such questions, those who have plumbed the the furthest into the depths of what the mind can contemplate have emphasized that the ultimate is shrouded in mystery. And so while most of us find doubts and uncertainty scary, and many view acknowledgement of doubt and uncertainty with hostility, inasmuch as doubt and uncertainty are expressions of honesty, humility and the quest for truth and understanding, my own view is that they can represent a move deeper into what Christian faith is all about, rather than away from it.

October 20, 2010

Although I have had to decline any significant committment of time to the project, I applaud Tom Verenna’s recent expression of a desire to bring greater clarity to the topic of mythicism.

To briefly chime in, I understand “mythicism” to mean the belief that Jesus is best viewed as having been invented from scratch, or from a palette of mythical ideas and figures that themselves seem to not be based in historical events. It also maintains that our earliest sources referring to this figure are best understood in such a framework.

I would contrast this viewpoint with what we might call “Jesus agnosticism” (or hopefully something better!), i.e. the view that the historical evidence is inconclusive and thus the status of Jesus as a historical figure is best left open, with no attempt to make the positive claim that it is more likely that Jesus was a purely mythical invented figure.

Both of these viewpoints should be distinguished from what we might call “historical minimalism”: the stance that it is more likely that Jesus existed than that he didn’t, but that we can know little if anything about him with certainty other than that, and perhaps a few other basic details such as his execution.

Do those sound like useful distinctions? Are there other categories that should be added to the list, including perhaps distinctions within the categories I’ve mentioned? Can you suggest better names for these groupings? And of course, feel free to mention which you fit into, if any! 🙂

October 14, 2010

A recent post on Vridar illustrates one of the many problems with mythicism. One of the axioms of historical study (which, when ignored, leaves one doing apologetics instead) is that sources should be treated fairly. Accepting claims to the miraculous when found in the Bible while rejecting them when found elsewhere is not historical scholarship.

And neither is ridiculing those who find the evidence for the historical figure of Jesus as idiots, while treating those who view Socrates as a historical figure as sane and rational.

Neil Godfrey offers an extended assertion that history should only proceed where there is primary evidence in von Ranke’s sense. To quote Godfrey:

“Real” historians begin with, work with, facts that all historians and public readers can empirically verify are facts. There is of course the issue of probability. But I am talking here about empirically verifiable evidence or sources such as telegrams and inscriptions. I am also talking about evidence from secondary sources that can be independently and multiply verified and whose probability is also enhanced through such external corroboration and literary analysis.

Godfrey then offers this exception he found among books in the history section of a local bookstore:

There was one exception to this in the ancient history section. I did find two books on “the historical Socrates” – pictured above. The authors (or one of them, I don’t recall which) justified their books by pointing to the independently corroborated contemporary evidence for Socrates: Plato’s assertion that Socrates was a friend of the playwright Aristophanes is supported by references to Socrates in Aristophanes’ plays. None of this is primary evidence in von Ranke’s usage of the term. But since the evidence involves multiple and truly independent attestation, it does give some weight to the probability of the historicity of Socrates.

What I cannot understand is why Godfrey is willing to tolerate this non-empirical approach to history, even allowing that in these cases textual evidence alone might enable a historian to say that Socrates probably existed – just as I’ve suggested that a historian may, on the basis of the textual sources we have available, say something similar about Socrates. Not with certainty, as I’ve always emphasized, but in terms of probability.

It seems to me that here we get at the heart of the matter. If mythicists were interested in historical method for its own sake, they would be addressing the case of Socrates differently. If they were determined to deny the historicity of Socrates, we’d be hearing about how late the copies are of texts that mention him, and the possibility of interpolation. We’d be hearing emphasized that he is mentioned as a character in a play and in dialogues that are clearly intended to illustrate philosophical points rather than provide historical information. We’d have arguments that Xenophon turns Socrates into a real figure the way the Gospel authors are alleged by mythicists to have turned Paul’s doctrines into narrative.

A commenter on the post at Vridar asks why mythicism is not respected. Above all else, this is the reason. Mythicism isn’t about treating historical sources in the same way across the board. It is entirely the purview of people with a vendetta against Christianity, although even in such circles there are plenty who do not find it persuasive.

And it must be emphasized that it is taken no more seriously among mainstream historians than in Biblical studies. Indeed, less so. The practitioners of mythicism are not historians by profession, but people with degrees in fields like Biblical studies and theology, when they have higher degrees at all related to this subject. The very sorts of degrees the holders of which Neil Godfrey regularly disparages.

And so more than anything else, the issue is not simply that mythicists use unpersuasive arguments but the same methods as everyone else. No, apparently almost all historians missed the memo requiring that mainstream historians not try to ascertain probability when there are no inscriptions (telegrams are out of the question in the ancient world) and so they continue to discuss figures such as Socrates. And it is possible to explore in a sane and rational way the possibility that he was invented. But it is also possible to discuss rationally, and make a case for, his having existed, without inscriptions or telegrams. And that is clear evidence that the methods used by historians investigating Jesus are not unique to that particular area of ancient history. And to the extent that they are distinctive, such as in formulating specific, clearly-defined criteria of authenticity, it is because the figure of Jesus is so very controversial that, on the one hand, people have a vested theological interest that can skew what they see, while on the other hand, others have a vested interest in denying Jesus’ existence, so much so that they will see plainly and even highlight what historians do in cases similar to that of Jesus, and yet remain unwilling to apply the same approach fairly across the board.

February 22, 2010

Discussion of mythicism continues around the blogosphere. Eric Reitan has posted on the topic of mythicism. Neil Godfrey also has posted two rejoinders. I was rather disheartened to read a comment there from someone who said he reads my blog regularly and was disappointed at what he perceived as my closed-mindedness about the existence of Jesus. That is of course a response (yes, I know, here we go again) which one will often hear from creationists, expressing their dismay that a scientist whom they respect somehow failed to perceive just how powerful the criticisms of evolution are that have been offered by Behe, or Dembski, or whoever else.

The truth is that I am perfectly open to the possibility that Jesus might not have existed. If the evidence leads me there, I will go there. The problem is that the lack of certainty here, the lack of a persuasive explanation there, a significant disagreement among experts over there, all that does not make the existence of Jesus unlikely, any more than similar points about evolution somehow undermine the strength of that best-tested of scientific theories. Lack of evidence is simply lack of evidence – a good theory has to actually account for the evidence we do have. Indeed, perhaps comparing mythicism and historicism to theories in the natural sciences will be helpful. A theory is a framework within which to integrate, explain and account for a wide array of data. Both mainstream and history and mythicism claim to offer that. I certainly may have missed something important (who isn’t capable of doing so?), but from my perspective, mythicism doesn’t account in anything near as straightforward and plausible a manner with the relevant data as does mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus.

What I’m hearing from mythicists lately sounds like an ironically inverted altar call: only doubt, and the truth become clear. The problem is that I have doubted and continue to doubt. And it is skeptical, critical investigation of the evidence that persuades me that Jesus almost certainly existed, just as it has led me to accept that there are plenty of things in the New Testament Gospels that Jesus is alleged to have said and done which he almost certainly didn’t do. The failure of mythicists to acknowledge that it is possible to genuinely question Jesus’ existence and be persuaded by the evidence that he existed presumably explains why they have felt no need to offer a coherent, plausible account of Christian origins from a mythicist perspective. Like fideists in Christianity, the mythicist standpoint seems to say “Simply doubt, and you will know the truth.” Well, I have doubted, and doubt has not led me to mythicism, but to the conclusion that it is more likely that Jesus existed than that he didn’t.
And for the record, I have read things by Richard Price, and by Earl Doherty. But I’ve also read things by Richard Carrier, and particularly appreciated his podcast (apparently no longer available online) which challenged some common arguments used by mythicists. Since mythicists have published little or nothing in mainstream scholarly venues, it is hardly fair to criticize me for not engaging the best mythicist arguments, or complaining that the views I’m arguing against aren’t representative. When I’ve addressed a mythicist view or claim, it is usually because someone has made an assertion on my blog.

What Richard Carrier offered is what some creationists have offered. Mythicists have begun to police their own ranks and point out that mythicists themselves are guilty of using arguments that are problematic and thus unpersuasive. This is a good first step towards intelligent dialogue. Until well-informed mythicists begin to address the constant repetition of half-truths, falsehoods, mistakes and irrelevancies that typify many mythicist web sites, blogs, and commenters, it will be hard for anyone to take seriously the claim that they represent a phenomenon radically different than young-earth creationism. The only difference that seems clear at this stage is that one calls for a leap of faith, the other for a leap of doubt. But mainstream science, history, and scholarship in general is not about leaps but about careful step-by-step examination.

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