2010-10-20

Publications against the Christ Myth: Scholarly links and reviews

by Neil Godfrey

Two publications critical of the Christ Myth idea have recently been brought to the general public’s attention by two mainstream biblical scholars. This post and the next compare the two books, and what each indicates about the nature of the mainstream scholarship’s responses to arguments that Jesus had no historical existence.

First is the newly linked book by Shirley Jackson Case, The Historicity of Jesus, published in 1912.

It is encouraging to see an associate professor whose area of expertise is Johannine Christology and not any form of history, and who has regularly expressed a serious personal concern about what he regards as the fallacious and creationist-like attitudes, ignorance and arguments by Christ-Myth proponents, catching up with some of the extant publications addressing this controversial issue.

The second book I address is Goguel’s Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, first published in 1926. This has been republished recently with a lengthy introduction by a historian of religion, R. Joseph Hoffmann.

These two posts are an attempt to illustrate the existence of a wide gulf in understanding of the Christ Myth idea and the divergent levels of serious academic acumen that is brought to bear upon the question.

Case: The Historicity of Jesus

This book by Shirley Jackson Case was first made available online in 2003 by Peter Kirby who at the time was himself involved in online debates about the historicity of Jesus, including discussions with Earl Doherty. Those involved in those discussions were looking desperately to find the best available arguments against the Christ myth idea, especially since a common rejoinder from mainstream scholars was that the sceptical arguments about Jesus’ existence had been dealt with long ago and therefore had no need to be revisited. So where had those arguments been made? S. J. Case’s book was one that was pulled off the dusty shelf.

Case is arguing for the historicity of Jesus from a faith-based and supernaturalist perspective. He blames the “Liberal Theology” of his day for opening up the doors to scepticism over the historicity of Jesus. According to Case, once scholars embraced naturalistic explanations and disallowed a priori the intervention of God and the miraculous into historical explanations, then the floodgates were opened for others to continue to question the Gospels until they found no reason to even think of them as reliable sources for the historical Jesus at all.

In the first place, the philosophical presuppositions formerly underlying christological speculation have been supplanted by a world-view in which natural law is given a higher and more absolutely dominant position. Consequently the gospel stories of Jesus’ mighty works are reinterpreted to bring them within the range of natural events, or else they are dismissed as utterly unhistorical. . . . .

[Jesus] is no longer the miracle-working individual whom the gospels portray. And if in this particular the gospel representation is fictitious perhaps it is not surprising that some persons should ask whether the whole portrait may not be a work of fancy. . . .

Furthermore, religious knowledge is no longer thought to be supernaturally acquired. Instead of relying upon some record of a supposedly supernatural revelation as a basis for authentic religious knowledge, reason and human experience have been made fundamental. . . .

When this modern attitude on the general question of religious authority is brought to bear upon one’s thought of the historical Jesus the traditional conception of his authority is radically modified. Since the “liberals” maintain that religious knowledge is neither acquired nor made valid by supernatural means and that spiritual attainments have not been standardized once and all time by supernatural demonstrations, even if Jesus is assumed to be the fountain of supernaturally revealed religious knowledge, there is now no absolutely certain means of knowing just what had been thus revealed. . . .

Still more disturbing is the fact that the Jesus of “liberal” theology is not a supernatural person . . . . (from chapter 1 of The Historicity of Jesus by Case.)

This is a commendable introduction by Case to his book arguing for the historicity of Jesus. He declares his bias from the start for the benefit of his readers.

Case tends to make a series of assertions (rather than arguments) that the anonymity of the original gospels argues in favour of their early date and reliability as historical records; that they are free from the characteristics of pseudepigraphy; that a narrative that portrays Jesus as a rejected prophet deserves a priori to be regarded as historical; that the nobility of the character and sayings of Jesus also testify to the historicity of the Gospel’s account. His arguments in relation to Paul are even more superficial. His assertions are driven by his openly confessed supernaturalistic assumptions and are founded on subjective sentiment more than noncircular logic and evidence.

Anyone interested in reading Doherty’s discussion of Case’s book can find his comments on it here.

I think it should by now by apparent why this book by Case should be more “linked to” than actually utilized in any discussions about the historicity of Jesus.

Anyone who seriously recommends this book in a debate today against mythicism is deploying an easily breakable reed.

A consistent record

Unsurprisingly, the scholar who most recently linked to this book by Case thinking it “appropriate” to the mythicist-historicist discussion as an example of the earlier arguments against mythicism, is the same scholar who recently linked to a Wikipedia article (on Historical Method) strongly indicating that he believed the sources used for that Wikipedia post supported his claim that historical Jesus scholars work the same way as historians in nonbiblical topics. At the same time he let slip a little supercilious suggestion that mythicists might not be familiar with the sources.

In fact, the main sources of that article was very much in the same camp as Case above. That Wikipedia article included 17 points taken directly from the writings of a decades old Catholic apologist for the validity of the accepting the acts of the supernatural in history. The 17 points in the article are superficial motherhood statements that can be used by supernaturalist and naturalist scholars alike so hardly advance the debate.

Of course the scholar who tends to link to sources that are in fact apologies for the intervention of the supernatural in history does not personally profess directly any belief in the supernatural as a historical explanation. But the fact that he did commend this Wikipedia article AND now the Shirley Jackson Case book — both built on openly proclaimed supernaturalist biases in historical inquiry — does demonstrate the lack of seriousness with which he engages in his arguments against the Christ myth idea.

Similarly he has demonstrated no knowledge of Doherty’s arguments apart blog and internet comments of others, and from something Doherty wrote on a web page some years ago. So it is perhaps not surprising that he fails to realize he is wasting his time and misleading others by commending the public’s attention to books he himself has never read, even patronizingly claims others have not read!, and about which he has made very, very wrong assumptions.

It would appear that he considers any book or internet source that carries the superficial indicators of credibility must somehow be of some benefit or service in any argument against those who argue that there was no historical Jesus at the start of what became Christianity.

What all this suggests about the seriousness (let’s call it intellectual integrity) of his manner of argument is something each of us can assess for ourselves.

This is a real pity, a real shame, because the debate can be addressed at a serious and scholarly level as my discussion of the next book will show.

Not a Supernaturalist anymore, just an “Unidentified Flying Causologist”

I might also add here that while NT scholars may ostensibly say they reject the supernatural as an explanation for historical events, they are prepared to accept the Gospel and Acts basic outline of how Christianity started even though it leaves some “unexplained” problems. That would not normally be a necessarily critical problem for any hypothesis. Many hypotheses leave a few “twiggy” branches unresolved. But these “unexplained” areas are not twiggy, but are the very central ones on which their model hangs — e.g. how/why the disciples supposedly came to believe Jesus was resurrected and how/why they so quickly exalted him to divine status and how/why such a belief spread so rapidly among Jews and gentiles. Miracles and the supernatural are wonderful and perfect explanations for all of these questions. By removing the miraculous and replacing this with “ongoing unknowns/questions” is not a particularly imaginative approach to the study of the evidence for Christian origins.

Goguel: Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History?

The second book that has been released anew to the public is Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History by Maurice Goguel. This book was also made available online around the same time as the Case book by Peter Kirby on his http://www.christianorigins.com/ site. But the edition which I discuss here is the one recently republished with an introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann. Unlike the scholar discussed above, Hoffmann does have qualifications as a “historian of religion,” so we can expect different perspectives in their presentations of their respective books addressing a critical historical question.

Will discuss in the next post.

 

6 Comments

  • Hjalti
    2010-10-20 20:07:15 UTC - 20:07 | Permalink

    Yeah, when I saw McGrath link to that book, I scimmed over parts of it, then I saw this:

    Unquestionably [Paul's] type of dogma in general, and the needs his epistles were written to serve, did not call for emphasis upon the life-history of the earthly Jesus, but to interpret this silence as meaning utter ignorance is not justified. A similar argument would make the author of Acts ignorant of Jesus’ earthly career, but we happen to know that this same writer composed the Gospel of Luke.

    And I started to read Acts, and already in the first speech we see this:

    “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know– this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. (Acts 2:22-23)

    If only Paul were more like Peter! :P

  • Hjalti
    2010-10-20 20:08:00 UTC - 20:08 | Permalink

    Forgot to give the page number: p.194

  • 2010-10-20 20:48:22 UTC - 20:48 | Permalink

    McGrath is astonishingly unprofessional with his propensity for suggesting reading materials that he himself has obviously never read. He is even less professional, one might even say fraudulent, in his repeated claims to be a “historian” when he has no qualifications in history at all as far as I have been able to determine. He is a christologist, not a historian. (Until recently I had been addressing him as a historian because that is how he repeatedly depicted himself in one of his books and in his blog. I took that claim on trust, but have since come to understand how he has come to make some of the most inane statements about historical methodology — so I really should apologize to genuine NT historians whom I may have once bracketed with him.)

    Another mark against his professionalism (and here we get into the dark depths of unadulterated bigotry and intellectual snobbery) is his zealotry in publicly denigrating a position he has never investigated, but merely heard about, presumably “on the internet.” His posts and comments attacking Doherty over his supposed ignorance of Aristotelian cosmology and the place Aristotle gives to “the firmament” have only exposed his own ignorance of both Doherty’s actual arguments and the period of Middle Platonism itself. But even if he did take the time to read the arguments, he has demonstrated with his untruthful comments on, and complete avoidance of the main argument covering most of the pages of, Price’s chapter in 5 Views that he is intestinally incapable of actually reading what mythicists are saying. (He has accused me of retreating or backing away from criticism whenever I point out, with quotes and citations, that his criticism is a straw man.)

    But he has recently cited a webpage composed by Doherty. So we must welcome little advances like this. He is getting there.

    Those responsible for his tenure and pay ought to hold him to account as a public intellectual. But of course that is not likely as long as his targets remain the politically impotent.

  • 2010-10-21 22:56:34 UTC - 22:56 | Permalink

    JW:
    The bottom line is that McGrath El-all believe that god sacrificed himself to himself thereby conquering death by dying in order to end his own eternal law. So he believes in the Impossible. On the other hand, MJ is Possible. So it does not suit McGrath El-all to ridicule MJ. He needs to drop the attitude for starters.

    What you are getting at above is that MJ/HJ is like a Jewsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. What we do have though are the borders which are the Impossible claims. We can be absolutely certain that these claims are false. They are not to be ignored than as evidence, they are in fact our best evidence. There is a direct relationship between the extent of Impossible claims and the likely historicity of related Possible claims. To the extent an author creates/accepts the Impossible this impeaches/greatly reduces their credibility. If it is Impossible for McGrath El-all to accept this than stay in the theology department where you belong and leave history to historians. One of the best evidences for MJ are the Impossible claims which can not be ignored/denied.

    Raymond Brown was probably as good as Christian Bible scholarship got until Ehrman. He was officially neutral on the Impossible which reflected the Christian Bible scholarship of his time. He was likewise as guilty as McGrath referencing inferior books to deal with the claims of critics. If you want to be a historian and not a theologian you have to weigh ALL the evidence and not just the evidence that supports your conclusion. That’s how we got Christianity in the first place.

    Joseph

  • 2013-07-12 23:01:28 UTC - 23:01 | Permalink

    The link in “Anyone interested in reading Doherty’s discussion of Case’s book can find his comments on it here.” is broken both on this blog and the WP version.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-07-12 23:50:58 UTC - 23:50 | Permalink

      Try it now.

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