Time wasting and “mythicism”

by Neil Godfrey

At least one theologian has seen fit to write regular posts about mythicism even though it becomes more apparent with each one of his posts that he has simply never read very much at all by way of publications by mythicists. He certainly never cites his sources or quotes the places where he claims “mythicists say” or “mythicism says” this of that. Such vagueness certainly conveys to me the impression that he is doing nothing more than surmising from some general idea he has heard or skimmed somewhere. I certainly can’t relate his claims about “mythicist” arguments to any “mythicist” publications I have read. His claims are usually straw man parodies.

Then there are the usual charges that if mythicists were serious they would present their case to a scholarly audience. But then he will also say in the same ensuing discussion: “And it remains the case that, to my knowledge, no one who is a historian of the Judaism of this period finds mythicism worthy of serious consideration.” In other words, he is admitting that it would be a waste of time for “mythicists” to attempt to present their case to a scholarly audience. A scholarly audience, he is saying, would find any such presentation “worthy of serious consideration.”

But again, he is vague about whom he means by “mythicists” in this context. There are at least two contemporary scholars who have published for scholarly audiences on a mythicist Christ concept. Another, G. A. Wells, has been mentioned favourably in a re-publication by R. Joseph Hoffmann of Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth. Earl Doherty has certainly attempted to presented his case before academics by engaging with them in a number of ways in various venues, including on the old Crosstalk discussion list, and a number of the scholarly community have also spoken commendably about his work.

[Note 14th Feb 2011, I have removed paragraphs from here that were based on imputing too much into a few words by Mark Goodacre. See comments by Mark Goodacre below.]

I originally responded to James McGrath because he had repeatedly insisted he was genuinely wanting to understand “mythicism”. After all this time he is still doing blog posts that only demonstrate his total lack of interest in understanding it. Arguments that he made over a year ago, and that I responded to in some detail, he continues to make oblivious to any arguments that have been marshalled against his position. He is not interested in engaging with the “mythicist” position but only in slandering it.

Perhaps I should do a list of posts that he has responded to on this blog so readers can judge the integrity of his engagement with “mythicism” for themselves. I think that would be a more useful response to the wilfully ignorant fatuousness that appears in the periodic blog posts there.

Till then (I can’t imagine many more depressing blog posts, so it might be a while) here are what a few other scholars have said about Earl Doherty’s work, since it does seem to be mainly Doherty’s arguments for “mythicism” that he seems to be (culpably) misconstruing:

There are better and more worthy audiences to address than the wilfully ignorant McGrath.

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  • Bob Carlson
    2011-02-06 23:56:29 UTC - 23:56 | Permalink

    In this video Bart Ehrman expresses annoyance at sometimes being quoted as someone who thinks Jesus didn’t exist and then goes on to say “I don’t think there is any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus.” He sees those historians who do doubt it as just wanting to write sensational books and make a lot of money. It seems as though he regards his own books, such as “Misquoting Jesus,” as being of a completely different genre. Ivory tower snobbery?

    • 2011-02-07 07:21:49 UTC - 07:21 | Permalink

      I saw him at a talk once, when he was taking questions from the audience, and it was interesting to see how he used the bandwagon argument. He got a question on a mythical Jesus and gave “no serious historian” line, and then on another question (I forget the subject) he reversed the common topic, i.e. “Well, most scholars think X, but I, on the other hand, think Y.”

      Having read quite a few of them, I think Erhman’s books are pretty moderate when it comes to the edginess of NT analysis and history. I usually go to his stuff if I want to see the status quo opinion on some matter.

  • 2011-02-07 00:01:11 UTC - 00:01 | Permalink

    No, Ehrman’s books are for real. The irony is that the money makers are the really stupid books about Jesus from the fundie side. But Ehrman;s comment indicates a woeful lack of thought on the topic — I can’t think of any mythicist who makes money, save perhaps Freke and Gandy.

  • Mike Wilson
    2011-02-07 04:40:01 UTC - 04:40 | Permalink

    “His claims are usually straw man parodies.

    Then there are the usual charges that if mythicists were serious they would present their case to a scholarly audience.”
    Could you please cite which claims and charges? I’m not sure you have read all his post. Maybe you have only skimmed or heard about it from somewhere. Be specific.

    • Mike Wilson
      2011-02-07 04:56:52 UTC - 04:56 | Permalink

      Before you go digging up the information, I’m only joking. In genral for a blog post I don’t expect a lot of citations and such. If some one wants to bemoan creationist, Christians, Democrats, Tories, or what ever I can follow the generalization unless it strays too far from the genral impression (“why is it that historical Jesus scholars are always calling for recognition of an independent Taiwan! ?????”) While I’m sure your conversations a peppered with citations and foot notes and complete bibliography,(your a librarian, recalling books are your bread and butter!) most people aren’t so precise.

  • Evan
    2011-02-07 04:50:38 UTC - 04:50 | Permalink

    Neil, Dr. McGrath made a very telling point in a comment to me yesterday:

    And the only thing that makes it worth continuing to engage your comments is because I know from experience that, when scientists let creationists have the last word in discussions online, those who happen across them later may wrongly think that the creationists “won”.

    I found that interesting, given that he thinks this is a waste of his time. If he spent half the time he spends being sure that someone won’t think he has “lost” actually arguing with actual positions that are taken by actual people, he would be able to comment from a position of strength (he is holding all the cards in his mind, his position is certain), yet he keeps deflecting, arguing from authority and delivering ad hominem calumnies.

    He believes the Acts of Thomas is a work of novelistic fiction. Yet he thinks that someone is crazy for believing that the gospels might also be. I can’t think of a substantive difference in style between the gospels and the Acts of Thomas. Perhaps there is one. This might be a good topic to look into further.

    • Mike Wilson
      2011-02-07 05:02:48 UTC - 05:02 | Permalink

      Evan, that you don’t notice the difference between Acts of Thomas and the Gospels is irrelevent. That argument from authority again. I’m sure somebody thinks “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” should be up for an Oscar, but there is no reason for recognized experts on film to consider the opinions of every boob out there that has no clue as to what seperates “Transformers” from “Black Swan” or even “Lord of the Rings”.

      • Evan
        2011-02-07 05:21:11 UTC - 05:21 | Permalink

        Mike, the point is not individual opinions, but verifiable heuristics. Dr. McGrath has an individual opinion about the Acts of Thomas. He also has an individual opinion about the gospels. The question is not whether a person individually has an opinion, but what method can be derived to determine as closely as possible what the true state of affairs is. Neil has recently posted on Michael Vines work with gospel genre and within this post he brings up Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on heuristics for determining genre. Is there a substantive difference that can be posited using literary analysis between the two? My opinion is near worthless here, but so is anyone else’s if it is not based on a reproducible methodology. I am sure that recognized experts can quantify and qualify the things that allow them to determine the worth of a work of art, and if they can’t, they don’t know what they are doing, literally.

    • 2011-02-07 06:19:02 UTC - 06:19 | Permalink

      Evan, the citation you post here demonstrates his shallowness and lack of respect for his audiences. Does he really think that any readers will think that an argument is won or lost according to who types the last line? Can he indicate any evolutionary scientist who feels so insecure in his arguments that he must continually be putting out new responses to every new post by a Creationist somewhere?

      This they “may think” idea is an interesting reminder of his emptiness at even an academic level. I read his book, The Only True God, in order to see what were the critiques of Segal’s “Two Powers in Heaven”, and his level of argument was pretty much at the “this can be questioned” level. What statement can never be questioned?!

      It is hard not to bring to mind the things said about the psychology of those who feel a compulsive need (that’s what needing the last word is) to ridicule, denigrate, bully others.

      This is one reason I do not agree with some people’s view that all the mythicists have to do is be polite and reasonable and they’ll eventually get a hearing. The issue is not about personal offence or even of intellectual argument.

      The opposition is visceral, not intellectual.

      Someone recently showed me the following video. It reminds me how absurd it is to think that even one like John Crossan would ever for a moment seriously countenance the very questioning of Jesus’ existence:


      • pearl
        2011-02-07 09:14:25 UTC - 09:14 | Permalink

        Gee, Neil. Matrix? Considering modern associations with a simulated reality (in the film), am I wrong to see irony here in his choice of term?

      • Bob Carlson
        2011-02-08 14:01:09 UTC - 14:01 | Permalink

        Wow, Crossan is really good at spinning a yarn. It is hard for me to reconcile his statement that, “of course, Matrix belongs to God” with his claim here that God is the driving force of evolution or with the similar claim of his pal, Borg, that God is “Isness.”

      • 2011-02-08 15:25:43 UTC - 15:25 | Permalink

        I’m sorry. I just can’t get this out of my head:

    • Daryl
      2011-02-07 07:11:47 UTC - 07:11 | Permalink

      re creationism and mythism:

      I find the constant linking of mythicism to creationism pretty ridiculous. Biologists have mountains of empirical evidence over a range of different fields, and a watertight consensus over the basics of evolution, which will no doubt change very quickly if new evidence ever came to light. What do historical Jesus scholars have in comparison? A bunch of secondary theological texts involving a man who no one outside the particular cult noticed and who the earliest (known) Christian didn’t seem to know much about either, stories about possessed pigs and people coming back from the dead, and a consensus that has produced as many historical Jesuses as there are scholars. Nevertheless, this is not really a problem to the HJ paradigm; it’s had its feet under the table a good few years and is very comfortable, thank you very much. Any chance of methodological rigour or a scientific self-corrective process seems, for the most part, absent.

      This is not to say there definitely isn’t anything historical in the gospels; but the chance that the gospels are complete fiction cannot be ruled out. It’s not a wholly wild idea, and some scholars who hold the position often make good arguments. To compare this view to creationism is so bloody lazy, and incredibly aggravating. To keep doing it only serves how intellectually bankrupt some HJ scholars are, and how empty rhetoric seemingly rules over valid argumentation in this particular field.

      • 2011-02-07 07:35:19 UTC - 07:35 | Permalink

        In a recent Point of Inquiry interview Hector Avalos said something that stuck with me. I can’t quote verbatim, but here’s the gist of it. Suppose I have a thousand photographs allegedly of my Aunt Mary. They’re all different, some subtly, some obviously — they’re all of different ages. They might all be of her; they might all be fakes. Some could be real — others, false.

        Unfortunately, I’ve never seen my Aunt Mary, and no one living today has either. So all I have is a big pile of photos with no corroborating evidence. There’s no outside control that can even get me started.

        This is why Avalos remains an agnostic when it comes to Jesus. The NT evidence is abundant, but it lacks any outside control. Every argument ends up being circular. Which Pauline epistles are really by Paul? Which sayings in the gospels really go back to Jesus? Well, how the hell would I know?

      • Mike Wilson
        2011-02-07 08:18:02 UTC - 08:18 | Permalink

        No way Daryl, it totally fits. I wouldn’t expect anyone here to see that, and no creationist thinks his view is like a mythicist, and an astrologer might be offended by comparison to the others. But really it is psuedo-science and psuedo-history. I mean it is fine to entertain it as a hypothesis, but I would be willing to bet most of you think it is proven that Christianity didn’t start with a person named Jesus but instead some kind of myth. When it gets to the point that people are championing composer Rene Salm’s work over that of the entire archaeological community, it really is time to say, these people have no business discussing history. Seriously, you guys make the few guys that are putting real thought into mythic origins for Jesus look bad, you’re just so uncritical.

        • 2011-02-07 16:56:39 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

          Mike, you are dredging up the most derogatory put-downs of Rene Salm that I have encountered on the net. But at least two of those who came up with this sort of insult I know had never read Salm’s book. One of them claims to be a “historian” with post-graduate qualifications. Sounds impressive. But I caught him out deliberately doctoring — actually re-arranging and deceitfully editing a post by Richard Carrier to make it sound as if Carrier was saying something he never at all meant to say. So we have a historian who lies and deceives deliberately and who may have been the one to have originated the insulting put-down that you are ignorantly repeating here.

          (I’d give his name but he has half a dozen names on the net and I don’t know and don’t care which is his real name.)

          You are a fool for repeating insults about the authors of books and the quality of the books you have never bothered to read for yourself, and also for denigrating others here who have formed a different opinion because they have taken the time to read stuff you will never read.

      • 2011-02-07 08:35:51 UTC - 08:35 | Permalink

        It’s the usual canards. The tactics, and strategic goals, are found also in the “conservative-critical scholarship divide” as pointed out by Niels Peter Lemche in his bogus discussion article:

        There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling.

        . . . .

        What is the aim of this labeling? Here it is interesting to compare with the characterization of conservative scholarship in James Barr’s book on fundamentalism where Barr in his own acid way reviews the tactics of conservative scholarship.9 We may summarize Barr’s argument in this way: The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you.

        . . . .

        Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche [Ditto for Doherty, Price, Thompson -- woops, he already mentioned Thompson!]; read books about them!

        . . . .

        Here it is interesting to see how narrow the range of knowledge of the output of the minimalists among their critics really is. Very little from before 1990 is known or quoted or discussed, although the minimalists-or the main exponents of the trend-are senior scholars approaching retirement and have been publishing for thirty years or more.

        Thus, it is never understood that we did not start with ideology. On the contrary, as historical-critical scholars of the old school, we started with critical scholarship as it used to be-trained in the European academic tradition already described-but we did not stop when the results were disconcerting and bewildering.

        By accusing a special group of critical scholars of today of being ideologists, the conservative scholars simply invert the fact that they are themselves embedded in religious communities with conservative ideologies.

        . . . .

        The following gives pause to any thought of even responding to those who criticize a view from a position of ignorance. Anyone interested in an honest inquiry will consider the two sides and not be swayed by whoever manages to have the latest word:

        Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be-according to European standards-critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

        This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship-irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.

  • 2011-02-07 05:30:36 UTC - 05:30 | Permalink

    In McG’s Mythicist Constraints? post from 2 Feb. he mockingly asks a series of “what if?” questions that I gather he thinks should embarrass his opponents. For example:

    What if by “brother” he meant some specific religious functionary in the early Christian movement?

    Just last week I read something that rings a bell here. Somebody wrote:

    “Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.”

    I wonder if McG would recognize the words of Origen from “Contra Celsum.” I guess he would say Origen was tainted by the emerging doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. However, notice that he says James wasn’t a stepbrother from Joseph’s previous marriage, or a cousin, or a childhood friend in Galilee. That’s the kind of thing you’d expect by way of Catholic apologia. No, he says they were brothers “because of his virtue and doctrine.”

    So if I take Origen at his word and conclude that some ancient Christians understood “Brother of Christ” to mean something other than a literal, genetic brother, am I doing it wrong? What if Origen is relating the orthodox (perhaps even original) position? Oops. I said “what if,” didn’t I?

    Later on in the comments, McG quotes Paul from 1 Corinthians 15. Here Paul says the risen Jesus appeared to 500 brothers. But I ask you, “What if by brothers he really meant some specific religious functionaries in the early Christian movement?”

    I think I understand the rule of thumb now. Always take the plain meaning of the text as the author’s original intent, unless it’s inconvenient for your purposes. Always check out the views of the church fathers, unless they don’t coincide with your preconceived notions, then explain them away.

    Now am I doing it right?

    • pearl
      2011-02-07 08:17:36 UTC - 08:17 | Permalink

      Sure, you’re doing it right, Tim. Origen has already been a target in the past with anathemas against him.

      • 2011-02-07 08:54:32 UTC - 08:54 | Permalink

        Ah, that’s a great relief. So it’s OK to use Origen as proof of what existed in Josephus’ writings before Eusebius, but if he says anything I don’t like I can always point out that he was a stinkin’ heretic.

  • Nikos Apostolakis
    2011-02-07 09:39:04 UTC - 09:39 | Permalink

    Every time that the dismissal of the mythicists because of their lack of credentials came up I was reminded of a quote by Chomsky but I was too lazy to track it down. Today I finally did, it is quoted here http://www.autodidactproject.org/quote/chomsky1.html and a
    longer excerpt is here: http://www.chomsky.info/books/responsibility01.htm

    In my own professional work I have touched on a variety of different
    fields. I’ve done my work in mathematical linguistics, for example,
    without any professional credentials in mathematics; in this subject
    I am completely self-taught, and not very well taught. But I’ve
    often been invited by universities to speak on mathematical
    linguistics at mathematics seminars and colloquia. No one has ever
    asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on
    these subjects; the mathematicians couldn’t care less. What they
    want to know is what I have to say. No one has ever objected to my
    right to speak, asking whether I have a doctor’s degree in
    mathematics, or whether I have taken advanced courses in the
    subject. That would never have entered their minds. They want to
    know whether I am right or wrong, whether the subject is interesting
    or not, whether better approaches are possible – the discussion
    dealt with the subject, not with my right to discuss it.

    But on the other hand, in discussion or debate concerning social
    issues or American foreign policy, Vietnam or the Middle East, for
    example, the issue is constantly raised, often with considerable
    venom. I’ve repeatedly been challenged on the grounds of
    credentials, or asked, what special training do you have that
    entitles you to speak of these matters. The assumption is that
    people like me, who are outsiders from a professional standpoint,
    are not entitled to speak on such things.

    Compare mathematics and the political sciences — it’s quite
    striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what
    you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about
    social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly
    if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally
    speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual
    substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials,
    and the greater is concern for content.

    • 2011-02-07 20:11:48 UTC - 20:11 | Permalink

      Nikos, this is brilliant. (But Chomsky usually is, except when he discounts evolution as an explanation for language.) It underscores the fact that the real issue in Jesus and Christian origins scholarhip is not intellectual but about identities and egos bound up cultural values and icons. The historicists are quick to dismiss the atheism of some of the proponents of mythicism (though not all of them are) on grounds of assumed ideological bias, but fail to acknowledge their own more culturally ingrained positions. The virtue of atheism, I think, if there is one here, is that it enables one to look a little more objectively at such a topic. It means nothing to atheists I happen to know personally whether Jesus existed historically or not. The question really is an intellectual one.

  • Kapyong
    2011-02-07 13:25:06 UTC - 13:25 | Permalink

    Gday folks,
    Yah, JMG’s web page is a joke. He clearly sees JMicism as just like holocaust denial, so he doesn’t even bother to deal with the issues, he just vents his superiority at a group he ‘knows’ are all just ignorant fools.
    One point I take issue with is the argument that a JM story must have been “made up from whole cloth”, meaning fiction, meaning the author was UN-constrained in writing the story.
    I pointed this out to JMG – that the Gospel authors were NOT writing fiction, they were NOT unconstrained – they were constrained by their sources – scriptures, beliefs, myths.
    His answer : “yes, fiction writers are unconstrained in what they write.” What an insulting and stupid answer.
    Frankly – I think the man is an idiot who is so convinced of his superiority that he doesn’t even read what JMers say. I didn’t bother to go back there.

    (Hello to Michael Turton – I recommended your site often :-)


    • 2011-02-07 20:15:25 UTC - 20:15 | Permalink

      Insulting and stupid answers are his stock in trade. But to be fair, he thinks mythicism is a waste of time even engaging seriously so how else can he ever answer?

  • 2011-02-07 15:54:36 UTC - 15:54 | Permalink

    I mean it is fine to entertain it as a hypothesis, but I would be willing to bet most of you think it is proven that Christianity didn’t start with a person named Jesus but instead some kind of myth.

    I willing to bet that you have are utterly unfamiliar with the field you are criticizing.

    • 2011-02-07 16:32:05 UTC - 16:32 | Permalink

      Mike Wilson regularly embarrasses himself here. He has made it clear several times now that he will spout this sort of drivel after first deciding what to believe by seeing what most biblical scholars seem to accept. He will mouth whatever the loudest critics of mythicism seem to shout, such as his insult against Rene Salm. Don’t ever expect him to read Salm’s book. It is enough that some others who have never read it either will insult him. That’s all Mike needs to join in and repeat their ignorant belittlings. Many of us have tried to lead him to read things to give him a knowledge of what we are all talking about but I don’t think he has ever found the time.

      • GakuseiDon
        2011-02-07 18:31:45 UTC - 18:31 | Permalink

        Hahaha! Mike Wilson, welcome to the Conspiracy! Our charter is to be mischievous (even when we are right!) and apparently misrepresent mythicist arguments. Meetings are held at James McGrath’s place. See you there!

        • 2011-02-07 19:52:57 UTC - 19:52 | Permalink

          Don, you and McGrath have accused me before of seeing conspiracies — please cite your evidence or I will think you are once again being mischievous and misrepresenting.

  • BillWarrant
    2011-02-07 19:51:20 UTC - 19:51 | Permalink

    My own perception is that time is best spent developing ideas concerning the development of early Christianity from a mythicist perspective (or from a more agnostic perspective with regards to the historicity of Jesus, Paul, JtheB, Peter and others) than by interacting with people like McGrath, GDon and Mike Wilson, because these people don’t appear to have anything constructive to contribute. Time is limited and these endless discussions never lead anywhere.

    It probably is good that there are mythicists who are willing to sacrifice their time by interacting with these folks, because this allows the more neutral readers to see the fallacies in the historicist position and it makes more people aware of the mythicist position.

    Much more work needs to be done on the mythicist position, to develop plausible theories of the origins and development of early Christianity, because currently this is what we are missing.

    • Steven Carr
      2011-02-07 21:04:24 UTC - 21:04 | Permalink

      ‘….to develop plausible theories of the origins and development of early Christianity, because currently this is what we are missing.’

      The historicist position is that Jesus died as shameful a death as Mussolini being hung upside down on meat hooks,and Paul was able to write to Gentiles hundreds , sometimes a thousand miles away, as they had accepted that this crucified person was the agent through whom God had created the world.

      In fact the historicist position is that the death of Jesus was so shameful,just like Mussolini’s was, that it was impossible to have been invented.

      So why was Jesus exalted to Son of God?

      • BillWarrant
        2011-02-07 21:14:01 UTC - 21:14 | Permalink

        I fail to see what your comment has to do with what I wrote there. Perhaps you could clarify.

        • Steven Carr
          2011-02-07 21:15:05 UTC - 21:15 | Permalink

          I was pointing out what was missing from current ‘plausible’ theories.

          • BillWarrant
            2011-02-07 21:31:46 UTC - 21:31 | Permalink

            I see. I was not saying that the historicists have a plausible explanation for the origin and development of Christianity, just that mythicists have some work ahead of them advancing their own theories.

  • 2011-02-07 21:05:19 UTC - 21:05 | Permalink

    Maybe I let a little heat out in some recent remarks. Probably has something to do with reading some malice and unsubstantiated insults directed at those I think of as on-line friends.

  • 2011-02-11 01:01:47 UTC - 01:01 | Permalink

    Thanks for the mention, Neil. I am a bit surprised that you find my use of the word “guess” in that context problematic. I am guessing there because I don’t know, and in a blog comment, I think guessing / questioning / searching is entirely appropriate. It’s a guess based on the kind of things people have said to me in relation to my own materials, but if it is wrong, please let me know. Is it not the case that archaeology acts as a “constraint” (James’s term) on mythicists? e.g. they tend not to doubt the existence of Pilate, Herod etc. Cheers, Mark

    • 2011-02-12 17:52:35 UTC - 17:52 | Permalink

      Hi Mark, There’s nothing wrong with “guessing” in such contexts, and I’m not meaning to suggest that as a principle or anything. The context here that I was addressing was James’ regular arm-chair speculation of what he thinks “mythicists” must or might argue, and then posting his demolition of his own little caricature. James has made it clear he does not believe “mythicist” arguments should be treated seriously, and he is not the only biblical scholar to post “critiques” of “mythicism” from a position of ignorance of anything “mythicists” do in fact say. Some of the most hostile critics are those one soon learns have never even read “mythicist” works. That was the context in which I was lamenting even your “I guess they would say” comment.

      Given that context, your own podcast that I understand says something along the lines of “Getting rid of Jesus would mean we’d have to get rid of Caesar” (I have not heard it, but this is the gist of what I have read more than once) further suggests an unfamiliarity with actual ‘mythicist’ arguments. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with unfamiliarity with every possible viewpoint, of course. But in this post I was lamenting that even some of the persons I have come to like personally seem to be willing to speak about “mythicism” despite unfamiliarity with arguments of any of its exponents. (The argument that if Jesus goes so must we doubt Caesar is invalid for several reasons, by the way.)

      But as you say, nothing wrong in a blog post from ‘guessing”. So I’m willing to put aside that context to address your point afresh here.

      Yes, archaeology would be one “constraint”. But that does not mean that an absence of archaeological evidence means we cannot accept the probable existence of ancient persons. I don’t think we have any archaeological evidence for Socrates. But what we do have is mulitple and independent sources whose provenance we can trace with some confidence. Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes are the sources closest to the time of Socrates. Aristophanes cannot be said to be writing about Socrates from a viewpoint that is related to those of philosophers. This does not prove Socrates existed historically, but it certainly gives us strong reasons to think it very probable. (There may be other arguments that come into the fray, such as literary models etc, but that sort of investigation is another question, and there are some scholars who have questioned S’s historicity.)

      Another side to the question is that the presence of historical characters in a narrative does not itself establish the historicity of other characters or of the narrative generally. The Alexander Romance is a work of fiction though the central character historically existed. The Book of Judith is a fictional work that includes Nebuchadnezzar.

      And may I also comment on my hearsay understanding of your apparent argument that if Jesus goes, so must Caesar go. Not so. There is an abundance of primary evidence (physically established in the relevant time and place) for the existence of Caesar (coins, epigraphy, statues), and also much secondary evidence (physically later, such as surviving manuscripts), letters and writings of contemporaries, of Caesar himself, some by friends and some by enemies.

      The common response to this is to say that we can’t expect the same types of evidence of an insignificant backwater figure. But we can’t change the rules of historical evidence, either. If Jesus really were half way so popular as some gospel episodes suggest, we do have good grounds to expect some independent notice to reach us of his existence. Compare, for example, Socrates.

      We can infer the existence of many ancient persons on the basis of their inclusion in secondary sources we have for the likes of, say, Julius Caesar. The nature of these sources (their purposes, their known provenance and authorship, and their relationship to persons for whom we have primary evidence, etc) gives us reasonable grounds for inferring the existence of quite a few ancient persons.

      The nature of the evidence for the existence of Jesus is quite unlike anything we have for other ancient persons.

      • 2011-02-13 03:55:25 UTC - 03:55 | Permalink

        Thanks for your comments, Neil. I am pleased to see that you accept my use of guess in that context and that you agree with the point that archaeological evidence is one “constraint” on mythicism.

        Given that you are criticizing James and me for not having sufficient first hand knowledge of mythicist arguments, I am surprised that you go on to comment on a (twelve minute) podcast that you admit you only have “hearsay” understanding of. As it happens, I do not make the argument that your hearsay understanding imputes to me. Moreover, I actually went out of my way to get some audio of G. A. Wells for the podcast so that I could at least attempt to allow him to speak for himself.


        • 2011-02-13 05:46:57 UTC - 05:46 | Permalink

          He is perhaps misremembering a quote from your podcast, which I mentioned here:


          Quoting again more briefly:

          And the thing is, if we start denying the existence of Jesus then we really have to deny also the existence not only of John the Baptist, but also Herod Antipas, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas, Herodias, Peter, John, James . . . The list just keeps going on.</

          While one could easily infer from the ellipsis after James that Julius Caesar would follow down the memory drain, to be fair you did not mention him. However, the same arguments Neil cites above can easily be used to confirm the existence of Herod the Great. We have multiple, independent, named sources from the period. We have coins from his dynasty.

          http://www.forumancientcoins.com/catalog/roman-and-greek-coins.asp?vpar=925&pos=0#Herodian Dynasty

          Despite his many atrocities you have to admit the man liked to build. How could anyone seriously entertain the idea that Herod would disappear from the pages of history when we have the Palace of Herodium, the Fortress at Masada, etc.?


          So while you did not say if Jesus must go, Caesar must go, you did say if Jesus goes then “we really have to deny the existence of . . . Herod.” Seriously? Herod the Great? It’s laughable enough to hold Pilate hostage to protect Historical Jesus studies from the barbarians at the gate, but Herod?

        • BillWarrant
          2011-02-13 07:26:23 UTC - 07:26 | Permalink

          Come on Mark, Wells has become a rather irrelevant player in Jesus mythicism. Much has happened since his major publications (have you read them by the way?)

          I assume you’ve read Doherty’s books, otherwise it’s rather silly to even talk about Jesus mythicism. I don’t agree with much that he writes, but given his popularity amongst mythicists you cannot be taken seriously if you haven’t done the required reading. Internet discussions alone will not get you there.

          On the other hand, given that you will always take a historical Jesus as a given, it is all rather irrelevant.

          • maryhelena
            2011-02-13 18:50:48 UTC - 18:50 | Permalink

            G.A. Wells “a rather irrelevant player in Jesus mythicism”? It’s a matter of perspective I suppose :-) As for myself, I find that Wells offers mythicism a way out of it’s current cul-de-sac – because that is where Doherty has taken it.

            No, I’ve not read books by Doherty or Wells. I’ve only read some online writings (and google view for some of the books by Wells.) So, perhaps you might think that I should not be taken seriously? Come now. Mythicism is simply a rejection of the claimed historicity for the gospel Jesus. And that is something I did about 30 years ago. I had no need of either Wells or Doherty to do that. A simple case of deduction: remove all the supernatural elements of the gospel story and the ‘emperor’ is found wanting, found to be naked. Even if, for the sake of argument, a nobody figure was underneath the supernatural clothes, such a figure would be a complete irrelevance for both theology and the prophetic concerns of the early Christians. In other words, such a figure is a dead end – as is the historical search for such a nobody, everyman type figure. All the historicists have are their own stories; their own composition derived from their ‘take your pick’ approach to the gospel story. And yes, of course, any mythicists following Doherty are doing the same. That’s just the way things are when one is relying upon ancient texts as the starting point for ones re-construction of early Christian history. One is able to put ones own spin on things….

            I wrote to Wells over 20 years ago. Since that time he has put forth a theory – relying upon Q – but that is a side-issue and does not detract from his basic insight – that the human preacher (in Q) is not to be confused with the Christ figure of Paul:

            “My case is that, while some elements in the gospels may have elaborated the career of an actual itinerant Galilean preacher (who was not crucified and certainly not resurrected), the dying and rising Christ of the earliest extant Christian documents cannot be accounted for in this way; and that not until the gospels are these two very different figures fused into one.”


            This is the sort of thinking that can provide mythicism with a way out of the cul-de-sac that Doherty’s ideas have taken it: The Galilean preacher figure of Wells and the supernatural figure of Paul are not to be equated. And most importantly, for Wells, his human preacher figure was not crucified.

            Yes, mythicists are correct – there is no historical gospel Jesus. However, on the other hand, the historicists are correct to insist that history is relevant to the gospel storyline. The big question is, what history? That is the only question of relevance. The NT, like the OT, can have any old tune played upon it. Dating, interpolations, interpretations – great for debate but useless for any attempt at reconstructing or understanding early Christian history.

            “Historicized scripture” or “scripture historicized”.? Perhaps its not a case of either or – but that both ideas have value. Yes, lots of scripture being historicized (Neil’s work in unravelling the sources for many of the gospel stories is worthy of a medal :-) However, it’s the “historicized scripture’ part that both the mythicists and the historicists need to consider. Consider not in relationship to the non-existent gospel Jesus – considered in relationship to the actual history of the NT time frame. (and is that not what the Jesus historicists are after and won’t let go – history matters…) A considerable time frame from Herod the Great (37 bc siege of Jerusalem) to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce. Over 100 years of Jewish history. Plenty there for any Jewish interest in ‘historicizing scripture’ to have a field day in re-telling such history as ‘salvation’ history. And, at the end of the day, is that not where Jewish interests have always been?

            Wells irrelevant – certainly not. Sure, as with all our ideas, we let some go and others propel us forward. However, perhaps sometimes we might run ahead of ourselves and end up in that cul-de-sac – and need to backtrack out of there and re-consider what we unwisely discarded.

            (Perhaps Doherty is able to take Paul’s ideas further than Wells has done – but without Wells he has only half a story to offer. And it is that half a story that leaves the Jesus historicists crying foul…..)

            • BillWarrant
              2011-02-14 03:48:15 UTC - 03:48 | Permalink

              If you do not read mythicist publications you do not take it seriously and therefore I do not take your comments on mythicism seriously. You may think what you will of that, but time is limited and therefore I prefer to concentrate on those who are actually willing to do the required background reading.

              • pearl
                2011-02-14 04:23:19 UTC - 04:23 | Permalink

                Bill, I don’t have interest in becoming active in this particular discussion except to ask what specific list of publications you require for others to participate in discussion with you. maryhelena has not read certain books, but she has read online writings and even communicated directly with Wells in the past, and she has her own original ideas about mythicism. You consider Wells to be “a relatively irrelevant player” and maryhelena to “not take it seriously.” You’ve mentioned Doherty. My apologies if you have listed your required reading elsewhere. If so, it would helpful to direct us there or else offer a list of those publications you consider authoritative. Thank you.

              • BillWarrant
                2011-02-14 08:43:40 UTC - 08:43 | Permalink

                It depends on what it is you want to discuss Pearl. :)

              • maryhelena
                2011-02-14 05:00:22 UTC - 05:00 | Permalink

                Oh, my. What an unfounded assertion to make – that I don’t take mythicism seriously because I have not read books by Doherty or Price – or any other mythicist for that matter. Doherty? Really? I was a mythicist long before he published anything regarding mythicism. And what I have read online I find nothing that interest me – which is early Christian history. Taking flights of fantasy with Paul might be of interest to some – but those flights of fantasy will not help one get to early Christian history.

                Background reading. Yes indeed. The NT. That is all one needs in order to decide for a mythicist position, a non-historical position regarding the gospel Jesus figure. It’s not more words that are needed, not more NT interpretations. Two a penny now as always. It’s history we need, Jewish history. Hasmonean/Herodian history. It’s Josephus that needs to be put in the dock not the NT writers. They are talking theology/spirituality, ‘salvation history’. What’s needed is history not ‘salvation history’. And in that connection, Josephus is being allowed a free pass on his historical reconstructions. It’s Josephus, not the NT Paul, that holds the keys to early Christian history.

              • BillWarrant
                2011-02-14 08:16:35 UTC - 08:16 | Permalink

                Scholarship does not procede by ignoring the major publications in any given area.

                I find it interesting that you have been a mythicist for so long, yet don’t see any reason to read recent publications on mythicism.

                I’m sorry if you feel offended by my opinions concerning the importance of secondary literature.

              • maryhelena
                2011-02-14 15:37:51 UTC - 15:37 | Permalink

                Bill: “Scholarship does not procede by ignoring the major publications in any given area. “

                “Scholarship” in NT studies? All I can see is scholarship in the Greek language of the NT – a subject I’m happy to leave with the experts. I’m afraid, like most people, I have to use the English text that they provide. Even here, I would imagine, translating words leaves room for error as to the original intent of the writer. Hence one more reason not to leave the last word to – words ;-)

                Bottom line, re the NT, is that it’s not about scholarship at all – it is about interpretation of the words written there. And, last time I looked, there was no degree to be had in biblical interpretation. It’s anyone’s game.

                NT historians? Give me a break – it’s more a case of theologians masquerading as historians. Back and forth, round in circles – all they fool are themselves and some of their readers. Jesus ‘historians’ – contradiction in terms there…

                Why buy a book on mythicism when I can read online a summation of it’s authors position? I don’t need to be convinced by someone else’s argument re the non-historicity of the gospel Jesus figure.

                Bill, mythicism, in and of itself is of no interest to me. Just as I’m not interested in debating atheism with theist I’m not interest in debating mythicism with Jesus historicists. Mythicism, for me, is just a starting point – and one has to move on and not get sucked into endless debates over it. Fine if one is new to the idea – but one eventually must move on.

                After deciding for a mythicist position – helped along the way by that groundbreaking book: The Myth of God Incarnate (edited by John Hick, 1977) and its follow on: Incarnation and Myth, The Debate Continues (edited by Michael Goulder, 1979 – I wrote to Michael Goulder in 1983) I simply reached for a history book: Israelite and Judaean History (Hayes and Miller, 1977).

                Reading books is all very well – but as GDon has pointed out, there is no substitute for doing ones own research – in whatever related field one finds of interest.

                So, yes, I’m open to reading history books but as for NT interpretation – I beat my own drum in that area and don’t need to buy the latest book on mythicism, a subject matter that, for me, is last year’s news story. A new mythicist book, a new twist on an old story – maybe great for the newbies but it’s still the same old story I learned years ago. There was no historical gospel Jesus. Been there, done that – and moved on to more interesting things…Josephus and his role as a prophetic historian.

              • BillWarrant
                2011-02-14 19:53:29 UTC - 19:53 | Permalink

                You are certainly entitled to think that you do not need to read about the arguments of others in forming your own theory, that online summaries do justice to an author’s position, that the original language of texts is irrelevant and to come up with your own unique view on the origins of Christianity. I wish you all the best with that. The web is filled with self-taught people who think they have discovered the holy grail of early Christianity. Quite a few of them are mythicists.

              • GakuseiDon
                2011-02-14 08:47:02 UTC - 08:47 | Permalink

                If you do not read mythicist publications you do not take it seriously…

                Bill, not really relevant to your point, but I would nitpick: “If you do not **investigate** mythicism then you do not take it seriously”. Just reading is not enough. Creationists read creationist publications all the time, and I doubt that many of them are taking creationism seriously, in the sense that they are interested in investigating whether it is right or wrong.

                In my experience many mythicists are the same. There are a few out there who are starting to do the legwork (Neil here is one), which indicates to me that they are taking it seriously. I wish more mythicists took mythicism more seriously. Most just point to mythicist books, and will expect you to be convinced, even if the mythicist himself has little knowledge to confirm the contents of the book.

              • BillWarrant
                2011-02-14 08:59:46 UTC - 08:59 | Permalink

                I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help replacing ‘Jesus historicists’ and ‘historical Jesus’ for ‘mythicists’ and ‘mythicism’ in your comment and it suddenly made a lot of sense. Thanks!

        • 2011-02-13 19:10:51 UTC - 19:10 | Permalink

          Mark, thanks for taking the time to notify me of this. I will listen, then, before making any further comments or reference to your podcast. I have always respected your manner of exchange and debate, and am pleased to have your assurance that I can remove your name from association with others I wish were as civil as you.

        • 2011-02-14 05:53:46 UTC - 05:53 | Permalink

          Mark, I have removed from the post my remarks about you. I realize I did read too much into your “I guess” remark. I can only plead the context, as I said, but I ought to have been more cautious and not have built so much on so little.

          So the comments here make sense for future reference, what I removed was:

          And it is a shame to see Mark Goodacre also chiming in with comments that begin with: “Thanks for the interesting post. My guess is that many mythicists would say that they are constrained by things like archaeological evidence . . . ” Firstly, he finds a post interesting because, I suggest, he knows nothing about what “mythicists” have argued; and secondly, that first surmise is found to be correct when we goes on to say what he “guesses” many mythicists “would say”. He simply does not know what they argue, presumably because he has read nothing by them.

          This seems confirmed by another comment where he says: “The fact that Christian texts also appeal to figures like Moses and Joseph from centuries earlier says little, to me, about the existence of Jesus and John from (their) very recent history.” This again demonstrates his lack of awareness of any actual argument made by the likes of Thompson, Price or Doherty.

          And that he is willing to do podcasts about the topic of mythicism, and write comments about it, obviously (and by his own admission, “I guess…”) without bothering to seriously inform himself about it, indicates a mind closed shut on the topic.

  • Mike Wilson
    2011-02-12 18:18:30 UTC - 18:18 | Permalink

    Socrates position in Greek society was far greater than of Jesus in Roman society. And all the Socratic sources come from a small part of the world, that became much later a great state with Socrates as a world renowned philosopher. Does contemporary Roman literature record Socrates?

  • 2011-02-13 07:12:29 UTC - 07:12 | Permalink

    Thanks for the reference to the earlier comment thread, about which I was unaware. Of course there is a certain enjoyable rhetoric that one uses to make a point in an audio format, but the point I am making is to do with the nature of ancient history, and the essential contrast between political figures who inevitably leave a marked archaeological trace and characters like Jesus and John the Baptist who do not. It’s to do with how you approach the task of doing ancient history.

    • 2011-02-13 16:48:36 UTC - 16:48 | Permalink

      There is no doubt that Julius Caesar and Herod the Great inevitably left substantial archaeological footprints, while figures such as Jesus, John the Baptist, Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, Joseph of Arimathea, the young man who ran away naked at Gethsemane, and others will have necessarily left only literary traces.

      You had mentioned an “intolerable burden” in your podcast. We both agree that there is an intolerable burden that is placed upon these texts. Where we differ is that I contend when we try to squeeze history from them, we’re asking them to do too much. It isn’t the “hyper-skeptic” asking for corroboration who is going too far; it’s the mainstream scholar paring away the impossible, the implausible, and the nonsensical hoping to reveal historical truth who has strained the texts past the breaking point.

  • 2011-02-14 06:45:47 UTC - 06:45 | Permalink

    Thanks, Tim. Well, I suppose we are at different points on that spectrum. At the end of the day, it is evidence and argument that matters, and I’ll continue to try to be as open-minded as possible. You’ll probably find that a lot of what I write on the subject actually coheres with your perspective, e.g. my attempts to lay out the “missing pieces” in the data set, encouraging historical Jesus scholars to be somewhat less sanguine than they often are. I may turn that into a proper publication when I have time.

    • Steven Carr
      2011-02-14 07:59:03 UTC - 07:59 | Permalink

      ‘At the end of the day, it is evidence and argument that matters….’

      Evidence and argument?

      It would save a lot of argument if only historicists could produce some evidence that Judas, Thomas,Lazarus,Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Bartimaeus, Mary Magdalene etc etc etc existed.

      Surely there must have been one Christian who saw these people?

    • 2011-02-14 11:24:27 UTC - 11:24 | Permalink

      Thanks, Mark. And I will continue to read your works, listen to your podcasts, and make extensive use of the NT Gateway (an invaluable resource for dabblers like me), which I enjoy immensely. In the end, for me at least, it’s about drinking it all in — from all over the spectrum — and trying to put the pieces together.

      As far as being less sanguine, it would be refreshing just to hear, “We don’t know, but that’s O.K. After all, if we had it all figured out what fun would that be?” What concerns me is that there are so many unquestioned assumptions in mainstream biblical scholarship that when somebody like Margaret Barker comes along, it all sounds like so much jabber to them, and that’s a real shame. Or somebody like Doherty comes along and it becomes de rigueur to dismiss him as “some nut on the Internet.”

      I’ve said before here on Vridar that I appreciate your efforts to force the mainstream to address the Q question. Do you ever wonder if the emotional attachment people have with our favorite “juggernaut” is somehow related with their desire to have a semi-tangible bridge between the presumed oral tradition and the written gospels?

      • 2011-02-14 14:44:14 UTC - 14:44 | Permalink

        Thanks for your kind words, Tim. I am a big fan of “We don’t know”, as it happens, especially when one is doing ancient history! On the other hand, I do think there is a place for what Michael Goulder would call “informed speculation”. As he once said, Where evidence is lacking, our alternatives are to speculate or to go ignorant. That kind of position is open to abuse, but treated with a critical open mind, it is also potentially very helpful.

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