2010-02-26

James McGrath’s reply. Enjoy :-(

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by Neil Godfrey

-- updated with edits 4 hours after original post --

Why do academics, public intellectuals of all people, need to resort to abuse, insult, apparently deliberate misrepresentation and outright fabrication in order to counter a view they believe to be wrong?

James appears to be bowing out from his public mockery of arguments for a mythical Jesus with this one final lying insult:

I think, with Neil Godfrey’s help, I finally understand mythicism. It is a belief system in which, when asked about the historical figure of Jesus, you answer by mentioning William Tell, Rama, the God of the Bible and Atlantis. You then assume that these figures are comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in terms of the historical evidence. You then once again blame the other party for unfairly demeaning this viewpoint.

Oh, and don’t forget to cite Wikipedia and yourself as your sources, just to bolster your credibility.

This interaction has been interesting, but it has already begun to become repetitive. I have some exciting projects that I’ve begun or will be beginning work on, with which I expect to do one thing that mythicists tend not to: submit them for peer review. And so I expect to focus in the coming weeks and months on those and other more interest and challenging tasks.

James response here demonstrates to me that he was never for a minute interested in genuinely understanding the mythicist case, despite his repetitive pleas that he really was so genuinely “interested”.

The E. P. Sanders challenge and response

James challenged his readers to go through Sanders point by point and see if anyone could come up with a different conclusion. James knows I began to do this, and he has responded with silence and finally insult.

James has failed to point to a single mainstream biblical scholar who has actually addressed the question of Jesus’ existence — as opposed to assuming his existence. And I have demonstrated from Sanders’ book that Sanders is included here. James has responded with silence then insult.

The messianic expectation evidence and response

James insisted that there is abundant evidence for general Jewish expectations of a Davidic messiah at the time of Jesus, and told me to “read a book” when pressed for that evidence. I replied that I had read that book, and that it was what convinced me there was no such evidence, and I gave him evidence from other scholars to demonstrate that there was no such evidence. James has replied with silence then insult.

The evidence for earliest Christian belief and response

James insisted that there was evidence that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was a man and not a divinity, and when pressed he eventually produced Philippians 2, along with one interpretation that attempts to see Jesus being described as a second Adam and not a divinity. Apart from the arguably tendentious nature of the interpretation, I pointed out that in Second Temple Judaism Adam was believed to be a divine or angelic being first and foremost anyway. James has only ever responded with silence then insults.

Historical methodology and response

James remained ignorant throughout the exchange of genuine historical methodology in areas of history outside his narrow field of New Testament studies and seems to genuinely believe that NT “criteria of authenticity” are well established norms for all historical disciplines, although they might be named or defined differently by NT scholars. After I pointed out to him that not even all NT scholars conceded their value, and exposed their fallacies, and that other history departments have very different standards, James has responded with insult.

When I presented to him more supportable, logical and widely used criteria and normal historical methodologies, James responded repeatedly (so therefore apparently deliberately) with a false and misrepresentating rewording of what I wrote.

James seems to find such calls for him to support his assertions with evidence, and to answer the evidence produced by myself and others, as “repetitive”. He has only ever responded with insult.

Final remarks of sarcasm and ignorance

James has said he is quite content to rely on internet exchanges for all he needs to think he knows about mythicism. Yet he mocks my citation of Wikipedia. He is ignorant of the comparative standing of Wikipedia vis a vis Encyclopedia Brittanica. Does James prefer to cite sources that none but a privileged few can access?

(If James had bothered to actually follow a Wikipedia link he would have known their functions. But if he did know that, he would not have been able to honestly claim I was linking to add credibility to my argument. Better for him not to check the facts. That way when he delivers another arm-chair insult he can plead ignorance.)

James also sarcastically mocks me for linking to my own posts where I discuss some topics more fully. He did not make the same criticism for my linking to the books and sites of mainstream scholars or his own blogposts.

Will James only respect arguments that acknowledge the authority of his peers?

Is this James’ own way of deflecting attention from the fact he has failed to answer any of the questions about methodology and evidence put to him on behalf of the mythical Jesus argument? James finds insult a much easier response.

Why me and us? :-(

I must protest at James’ flattery for suggesting I speak for — or even present arguments found among — mythicists. But James does seem to have narrowed his sights on to me as his target for much of this exchange, and attempted to denigrate the larger argument for a mythical Jesus by twisting my words or ripping them out of context. (Not only me, but I was very surprised to see him use my arguments as representative of “mythicism” — or rather he did not so much use them as reshape them into straw men in every single case, I think.)

I am glad I was able to help James understand that William Tell, Rama, God and Atlantis are all fair examples of mythical characters.  Unfortunately he has missed the actual argument I used them with which to make a point about the difference between “a case” and “having reasons”.  And once again, repetitively, he misrepresented my argument completely.

I guess when someone admits he has not read the publications of those whose arguments he “thinks about a lot” and publicly denigrates, then misrepresentation of anything I or others of this viewpoint write is par for the course with James. He appears to have been looking for keywords that he can latch on to, rip out of context, for the purpose of making fun of the correspondent. Perhaps if I ignored him he would have not bothered to have attempted to equate my arguments with “mythicism”.

But it is certainly not just me, of course. Many others have also challenged James and James has rarely treated their comments with any sustained respect. There may be moments of civility, but the leopard’s spots are soon enough displayed again with the next post. Steven Carr’s barbs, in particular, reminded me of the boy who cried out “Look, the emperor is not wearing any clothes!” And everyone tells him to hush hush, and the parade carries on as if nothing has been said at all.

I am sorry this exchange with James has turned out this way.

But I chose not to let James get away with his ignorant slurs and insults as a public intellectual who has a higher responsibility to society, and which were also against some people I consider friends.

I wonder if he was expecting an easy ride and was a bit taken aback when he found “mythicists” knew more about the evidence and methodologies published by his mainstream peers than he seemed to have at his fingertips. When he spoke about “tools of authenticity” used by his guild, he seemed to think he was talking to an audience who would just accept his proclamation as “the way it is with us professors”. He could only go into silence when we threw the real status of those criteria back at him.

I am reminded of another academic who once suggested I read F. F. Bruce to learn the real scholarly understanding of Josephus’s “Testimonium/Jesus reference.” I had read the equivalent of volumes on the topic by specialists and those exploring the argument in depth. When I located the Bruce reference, it was a page of dot points and not much more! I suspected then I knew more about the topic than he did, and that he had not even bothered to read the arguments he was opposing. He also could only respond with insult when I exposed the flaws in what he seemed to have accepted from Bruce without question. Do many academics have this sort of disdain for those who are not part of their inner guild?

Is this how outsiders are normally treated when they blow the whistle on academics who are not quite as professional as they should be?

Albert Schweitzer is SO twentieth century!

It has been most instructive about the level of argumentation biblical scholars rely on for their “historical Jesus”.

Albert Schweitzer is dead, but he has said it all:

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century.

Michael Shermer and Jerry Coyne can write incisive answers to creationist arguments in respectful and reasoned manners. If James really thinks mythicism is like creationism (they both have different shades of opinion, he said in one justification of his comparison), he has demonstrated that even with his standing as an associate professor he is incapable of doing likewise.

 

 

  • Robert
    2010-02-26 19:18:33 UTC - 19:18 | Permalink

    This exchange has simply exposed McGrath as an apologist. Nothing less.

    I do hope that he is not representative of the overall quality of staff at the university he represents.

    If so, I would suggest that students should go elsewhere with their tuition money.

  • 2010-02-26 19:59:00 UTC - 19:59 | Permalink

    It’s a shame and I don’t feel proud of what has happened between me and James. I had once thought he was a nice enough bloke and kept making excuses for him when an internet friend kept trying to warn me of his true colours.

    But there is one positive that can come from this. James does discuss his “historiographical methodology” in one of his publications (discussing how biblical scholars can “know” what is fact from fiction in the gospels, etc.). I had always felt constrained by a certain online rapport with James to refrain from discussing his points on this blog. (I excused myself by thinking there were plenty of other ways I could address the same fallacies.) I won’t be constrained any longer. I will in the future be free to spell out here exactly what James says passes for “historical evidence” in biblical studies.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-02-26 20:16:00 UTC - 20:16 | Permalink

    Mainstream scholars are too dogmatic in my opinion about the historicity of events in the Gospels.

    On page 169 of ‘A Marginal Jew’ JP Meier writes about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist that ‘the event simply never occurs in John’s Gospel’

    Meier regards the baptism as historically certain, and gives the silence in John’s Gospel as part of the evidence for this certainty.

    But is this silence multiply attested? No it isn’t.

    Surely if we managed to unearth some more Gospels in some abandoned monastery library somewhere, and the baptism simply never occurred in those Gospels, then the silence would be multiply attested.

    And then we would have final proof that the baptism really did happen, proof even mythicists would be forced to accept – lots of multiply attested silence about the baptism.

    Surely, a responsible historian cannot conclude that the baptism happened, until the time that we find more texts where the event never occurred.

    Granted the event simply never occurs in John’s Gospel, but that is only one text.

    Until we find more texts which back up the silence in John about the baptism, we cannot leap to the conclusion that it happened….

  • 2010-02-27 04:46:33 UTC - 04:46 | Permalink

    I was very disappointed by McGrath’s tactics. Maybe he was trying to earn a little street cred with more conservative evangelicals.

  • 2010-02-27 05:32:33 UTC - 05:32 | Permalink

    I think James and other supernaturlists like himself miss the days when they were allowed to kill people that disagreed with them. So when things don’t go quite as they wish, and they no longer have the option of killing the people that don’t hold their view, they simply get angry, because they cannot silence views that differ from their supernaturalistic based views.

    And this is called “scholarship”? Lol… no wonder nobody takes these clowns seriously.

    Cheers!
    RichGriese.NET

  • rey
    2010-02-27 09:44:35 UTC - 09:44 | Permalink

    “I think, with Neil Godfrey’s help, I finally understand mythicism. It is a belief system in which, when asked about the historical figure of Jesus, you answer by mentioning…the God of the [OT]… You then assume that [this] figure.. [is] comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in terms of the historical evidence. You then once again blame the other party for unfairly demeaning this viewpoint.”

    Isn’t the OT god multiply attested by the 5 books of the Pentateuch in the same way that Jesus is multiply attested by the 4 gospels? Even as a caricature of your argument, McGrath still can’t handle the comparison. So he doesn’t believe the OT god exists even though he is multiply attested in the 5 books of Torah, but he believes that Jesus is historical because he is multiply attested in the 4 gospels? Such inconsistency.

    There are at least 72 witnesses who saw the OT god, James!

    Exodus 24:9-10 “Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.”

    And what about the millions who heard his booming voice from mount Sinai in Exodus 20? Doesn’t this evidence of millions of auditory witnesses and 72 visual witnesses compare at least to Paul’s over 500 witnesses in 1st Corinthians 15:6 which I’m sure James appeals to?

    How can he not accept the existence of the OT god on this evidence?

    • rey
      2010-02-27 09:46:06 UTC - 09:46 | Permalink

      74 actually.

    • Jer
      2010-02-27 10:12:32 UTC - 10:12 | Permalink

      And what about the millions who heard his booming voice from mount Sinai in Exodus 20? Doesn’t this evidence of millions of auditory witnesses and 72 visual witnesses compare at least to Paul’s over 500 witnesses in 1st Corinthians 15:6 which I’m sure James appeals to?

      To be more fair to McGrath than he has been to everyone else, I wouldn’t doubt that he would concede that the events attested to by Paul are not historical either. Or explainable by mass hallucination or one of the other popular naturalist explanations. Since from what I’ve seen so far of biblical studies it seems that you’re expected to eliminate the supernatural elements and then keep everything that you can remotely rationalize as something that could possibly occur as something that did occur.

      Post-Resurrection appearances? Supernatural and therefore ahistorical. Guy named Jesus wanders through Galilee preaching and assembling a cult of followers? Completely possible and therefore historical. There’s a gigantic leap of logic going on in there that Neil has been trying to point out but it doesn’t get through.

      And again to be more fair to McGrath than he has been to everyone else – I completely understand why he can’t get past it. To admit the possibility that Jesus might be ahistorical is to give up the last tie to Christianity a liberal Christian has. Lose the idea that the religion was founded by this awesomely special martyr whose death was so powerful that his followers needed to deify him after the fact and what’s left? The liberal Christian has already ditched most of the philosophy of Christianity and replaced it with post-Enlightenment philosophy. The liberal Christian has already rejected the overtly supernatural elements of Christianity and replaced them with post-Enlightenment naturalism. A good chunk of what the liberal Christian has left is this personal tie to the historic founder of Christianity. Losing that is for the liberal Christian equivalent to the conservative Christian giving up on the literalist interpretation of the Bible. It’s what I noticed when I read Spong’s book as well – he can come up with this idea that everything in the Gospels about Jesus is entirely ahistorical and yet he still has to insist – as a matter of faith and without any evidence – that despite all of that Jesus really was a real, historical person who was crucified. My annoyance at McGrath isn’t that he has blinders on – it’s that he was rude and insulting about insisiting that his blinders were the right ones and everyone else should put them on and shut up.

    • 2010-02-27 17:24:12 UTC - 17:24 | Permalink

      The classic inconsistency of McGrath was his argument in his youtube video that since we can’t talk about the resurrection (that’s a miracle), we can only talk about the crucifixion (which is “obviously” historical). And one can then construct an argument for its historicity by showing that it makes sense as a plot device in the early Christian narrative. But then they have a real “historical problem” on their hands — how to explain how the resurrection story got in there.

      All of the hoops and the hypotheses and the a priori “if X then surely Y” . . . .

      Meanwhile Thompson and Price demonstrate how the crucifixion-resurrection idea is but a small step from the literature and the ideas that were part of the intellectual world of the gospel authors, and Levenson also shows its similarities to the earlier Second Temple belief in Isaac’s atoning sacrifice and resurrection –

      So which of these two arguments rests on the fewer hypotheses and hypothetical ‘historical and psychological reconstructions’?

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  • rey
    2010-02-28 01:50:49 UTC - 01:50 | Permalink

    “So which of these two arguments rests on the fewer hypotheses and hypothetical ‘historical and psychological reconstructions’?”

    Well, I think its a false dilemma. Both historicists and mythicists are thrown off track by over reliance on the ‘orthodox’ tradition.

    A lot of early Christian sects didn’t believe in physical resurrection. Even Paul seems to imply purely spiritual resurrection with his “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” and so on. So its fairly likely that Jesus’ resurrection was originally understood to be spiritual.

    From that one can clearly make a case for a historical Jesus who went around preaching that the morality of the law alone mattered and not the ceremonies, thus he went around disregarding the Sabbath and such. As a result he was put to death for heresy by the religious authorities. (You could perhaps even mix in the possibility of them making him the Haman effigy that they hung or crucified every year for Purim. Just this year instead of a dummy, it was a real man.) And since the resurrection is seen as purely spiritual the historian can easily dismiss it as just as madeup claim to give legitimacy to the continuation of the movement.

    In fact, I have seen this exact scenario outlines by historicists before. And I don’t think there is much that can be said against it. To some extent doesn’t mythicism have to attack historicism that is based on the ‘orthodox’ tradition in order to win the case? Just as atheism has to attack an ‘orthodox’ view of God to win. (Atheists are simply incapable of arguing against Marcion’s God. They have to have the God of the unified Old Testament/New Testament Bible to argue against.)

    This is the great flaw of mythicism, but it is also the great flaw of most historicists and of basically all theology and of atheists too: preference for attackingdefending the ‘orthodox’ tradition and rejecting the ‘heretical’ traditions.

    With all the heretical traditions that seem to have spawned so quickly it seems absurd to argue that Christianity developed by Mark writing a novel and then people taking it seriously and making various religious sects out of it. Even if you can imagine people being so silly, why would the majority of the loons making a religion based on this novel end up so far away from the novel? The novel has a physical resurrection and an empty tomb, but they change it to a spiritual resurrection! Come on now!

    Doesn’t it make more sense that a charasmatic leader truly existed and taught against the ceremonies of the Jewish law and got martyred. And that his disciples believed he was resurrected spiritually and went about continuing the preaching against the law, producing systems of thought that maximized the original animosity towards the Torah (cough Marcion) and so on, teaching a purely spiritual resurrection. And then the movement was coopted by a bunch of orthodox Jews who wanted to tame the movement so it would not essentially convince everyone to abandon Judaism, so they invented an ‘orthodox’ tradition that said the great leader hadn’t been seeking to overturn the Torah but had only come to fulfill it, and they reinterpreted the resurrection as a physical one because of their Jewish adherence to the idea of physical resurrection and they made the leader figure Jesus no longer a man who opposed the Law but now the Messiah of the Law!

    Doesn’t this explain the origin of Christianity better than the idea that it all started with a novel?

    • rey
      2010-02-28 01:59:18 UTC - 01:59 | Permalink

      And one other thing is the mythicist case that makes Christianity to have all started with a novel called the gospel of Mark makes Christianity start as a literary production rather than by word of mouth. It seems to me the evidence points the other way: Word of mouth preaching came first, then the gospel of Marcion, then the gospel of Mark and the rest of the canonical gospels.

    • rey
      2010-02-28 02:44:59 UTC - 02:44 | Permalink

      Of course the ‘heretics’ like Marcion also deny that Jesus was born, thus taking him out of history at least by disassociating his origin from the world. He is historically God come down in the likeness of man, not a man born here. That could make for a case of Christianity being based on a ‘novel’ but it isn’t the gospel of Mark, its the gospel of Markion. Of course this poses a problem for the mythicist. You will have to convince everyone that Marcion’s gospel is the first in order to convince them that Christianity began with a ‘novel’. But once you do that, Christianity will have a revival since his gospel is more believable. I believe Jesus is historically God come down from heaven as a man without birth to defeat the lower god, as in Marcion’s gospel. Millions would believe it, which is why the ‘orthodox’ Christians and the atheists band together to suppress his gospel and its true place in the origin of Christianity. It is most convenient to the coffers of the churches and to the whatever of atheists to suppress the truth.

    • 2010-02-28 05:09:30 UTC - 05:09 | Permalink

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting it ‘started as a novel’. Mark’s gospel is responding to something. The disagreement – and it is a far from trivial disagreement and worthy of discussion, which is why I read this blog – is about what he is responding to.

      The default scholarly view is that Mark is building on an oral tradition, a passion narrative, and Pauline belief (not necessarily in that order or in equal measure), and that in turn these things probably, though not certainly, depend on a historical figure or incident for their genesis. Mythicist positions replace that germinal seed with something else or note that it is unnecessary. The interim development remains, though Paul’s position changes somewhat.

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