Vridar, not a mythicist blog, but a blog for Christian origins and the nature of the early evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

Updated  an hour after initial posting.

There is no historical inquiry comparable to: “Did Julius Caesar exist?” That ought to tell us something about the nature of mainstream historical investigations — and also something about the evidence for a historical figure of Jesus as an originator of the Christian religion.

I have posted far more in depth articles and discussions from mainstream scholarly publications on this blog than anything by or about “mythicists”, and I have never posted what aspires to be a comprehensive argument for mythicism. I used to say I rejected the label “mythicist” because such a label implied that I was somehow dedicated to presenting arguments for the idea that Jesus was not a historical person. (How, then, to explain that I have posted very little on mythicism per se or on publications by mythicist authors, opting overwhelmingly for non-mythicist publications? I have actually read very little on mythicism. One can get some idea of my reading range and interests on my librarything page.)

I certainly do think those arguments that claim Christianity originating with a historical person of Jesus and a few followers after his death are implausible, romantic and circular. And I do believe that many mainstream biblical scholars are in denial over the circularity of their methods, and have opted to bypass and denigrate rather than address serious challenges to their culturally sanctioned historicist paradigms.

So I finally realized it is less confusing if I do not attempt to disown the label “mythicist”. But my interest is not with arguing a case for a mythical Jesus per se. If I do argue for this, it is always as part of a wider argument that is attempting to address a key question about the evidence we have for Christian origins.

That is why this blog does not generally post arguments for mythicism. I do, however, post on arguments ab0ut methods, the nature of the evidence, and on scholarly publications that do address what I consider relevant aspects of the evidence, and are in touch with key problems with general methodological assumptions that seem to prevail among many of their peers.

I have often posted over the years on literary criticism and analysis. It is one of my favourite areas of reading and investigation. I think it is absolutely vital for any historical investigation to grapple with this area in order to engage meaningfully with the documentary evidence. I don’t think I have read a single scholarly work on literary analysis by anyone who has suggested that Jesus was not historical, or that their literary analysis is an argument for “mythicism”.

The arguments I present stand apart from mythicism per se. At the same time I do believe that some of these arguments can be used in support of a mythicist case. But what is more important is what they potentially contribute to an understanding of Christian origins, specifically to the nature of the evidence for early Christianity.

That is the real quest. I have said before that my interest is historical. For me it is meaningless for a historian to seek whether this or that person existed in the past. I cannot see the point of that as an historical inquiry.

For me is the really meaningful question is “how to explain Christian origins”.

Whether there was a Jesus or Peter or Paul or none of the above at the start of it as far as historical explanation goes is not something that can be decided in advance. Attempts to discover a “historical Jesus” strike me as answering a cultural curiosity, and I suppose to that extent have a place. But that is surely a secondary question. It certainly is for me. Historical inquiry is about explanations of happenings and movements. Not about “Did Mrs Socrates really exist or not?”

  • Paul D.
    2011-02-28 19:10:40 UTC - 19:10 | Permalink

    Is there anywhere where you’ve described (in detail) what you think is the most plausible explanation for the origins of Christianity?

    • 2011-02-28 20:32:57 UTC - 20:32 | Permalink


      I have posted mostly on what I see as the most plausible explanations for the creations of key evidence: what is the nature and origin of Acts, the nature and origin of Mark, the nature of John, the nature of Matthew in relation to Mark and Luke, the origin of Pauline literature, etc.

      Christian origins do not appear to have a focus in a single seed pod. Hence the focus on the various types of evidence, since this is all exploratory towards the origins of Christianity as having a complex multi-faceted emergence that eventually coalesced into the major competing streams, of which one was the eventual political winner.

      This is the reason many of my posts finish inconclusively or with questions. There is no evidence as far as I can see for a definitive single point of origin. The evidence points to something quite different. And this would make sense if it was something that eventually coalesced out of various mutations from any of the disparate strands of thought that comprised Second Temple “Judaism”.

      It is also why I believe mythicists such as Doherty have far more to offer towards historical explanations for Christian origins than many of the books on the historical Jesus which seem routinely to demonstrate the truism enunciated as long ago as Schweitzer — that they discover a Jesus in the image of the author’s own ideals. T.L. Thompson is quite correct when he says that they are also all based on the unargued assumption that there is a historical Jesus to discuss.

      And those scholars who say that HJ scholars can use tools to establish that Jesus did this or that, and by definition are therefore demonstrating Jesus did exist, are arguing in a crazy circle that fails the basics of Logic 101. But I have said enough how even those “tools” are used by biblical scholars in ways that are quite unlike the way they are used in other historical studies.

      So I do certainly take issue with what I see as the failures of mainstream biblical scholarship to address in a valid way the origins of Christianity. They substitute for this question some religiously and/or culturally sanctioned study of “Jesus” instead. “Jesus is the answer” seems to be their platform.

      The attempts to study early Christian origins on the foundation of this model have so far led to nebulous conclusions like Crossan’s Origins and to abstract socio-economic models like Crossley’s study that may as well leave “Christ” out of the picture completely. There is something seriously wrong with the basic model. It cannot even conclude whether Jesus is a Pharisee or a revolutionary.

      And the reason is obvious. Or should be. The evidence is, as per Schweitzer, Hobsbawm, Schwartz, Mandell and Freedman, Clines, Thompson, Davies, Liverani, . . . nothing but self-testimony. It does not allow us to validly expect of it the sorts of assurances in answers to questions we want to ply to it. The evidence only allows for a study of the documents, their nature, their relationships to each other and the wider thought and society. Sure form and redaction criticisms are useful, too, but only within the parameters that we can justify by the nature of the wider extant evidence. Preconceived models such as the historicity of the narrative itself have to go. If we eventually come back and find that the best explanation to all our questions is in a historicity of the narrative, then that’s fine. We will have reached it validly — and not have begun with the answer that we have sought to justify through to the end.

      We can only ask questions of the evidence that our evidence is equipped to answer. So that’s the only valid way the study of Christian origins can proceed.

      • Paul D.
        2011-02-28 20:45:23 UTC - 20:45 | Permalink

        This is the reason many of my posts finish inconclusively or with questions. There is no evidence as far as I can see for a definitive single point of origin. The evidence points to something quite different. And this would make sense if it was something that eventually coalesced out of various mutations from any of the disparate strands of thought that comprised Second Temple “Judaism”.

        I read a lot of interesting things here and I certainly don’t have the expertise to offer much in the way of valid criticisms, but these arguments lack the specificity that arguments in favour of some historical Jesus (like those given by McGrath) have, so while the arguments themselves sound reasonable, they also feel incomplete.

        I would be curious to know if there are other examples of legendary characters springing up out of nowhere over the course of a few decades. Surely the reports of Jesus and his sayings or his works, whether historical or contrived, had to start somewhere and come from someone. Does the lack of evidence ultimately make the development of a detailed and specific hypothesis futile? If you accept that there was an early apostolic component to the rapid spread of Christianity, how did it get coordinated initially and what convinced them to all go along with it?

        • 2011-02-28 21:22:38 UTC - 21:22 | Permalink

          I’m glad you noticed my posts “feel incomplete”. That’s because they are, just as I have explicitly stated from time to time, exploratory, not definitive. I learned long ago that it is foolishness to fight to the death for a point of view when my track record is for my points of view to die regular deaths and be replaced by new ones as I learn more.

          But the reason I am glad you noticed is because today I read on Tom Verenna’s blog that McGrath has finally noticed that apparently in something I recently wrote (he didn’t specify, so it may be a post or a comment) that my views are expressed “tentatively”. (He thought this was a new thing, so I just rolled my eyes and kept sort of quiet on that point.)

          I don’t think there has been any concerted major effort on the part of a host of researchers to examine Christian origins according to the norms of historical methods in other disciplines, so I would be vain indeed if I thought I could come up with some definitive explanation for how Christianity began.

          But as to your specific question, I don’t think it relates to the evidence as we have it. There is no reason to think — every reason NOT to think — that Jesus was a ‘legendary character’ sprang up out of nowhere over the course of a few decades. That question is still thinking within the parameters of the the gospel narrative being the historical paradigm. But the evidence as I have explored it points to no such scenario. Robert M. Price has made the same point. That is why I look at such ideas as seem relevant in Second Temple Judaism — the Enochian type of literature, the view of the atoning blood sacrifice of Isaac, etc. Doherty has looked at the Odes of Solomon, and some other quasi-Christian literature such as the original layers of the Ascension of Isaiah.

          As for a detailed hypothesis, the nature of evidence from ancient times generally allows only for studies that are broad sweeps, like the rise of Athenian democracy, or the development of Greek philosophy, the decline of the Roman Republic, etc. The rise of Christianity will necessarily also require a broad sweep type of hypothesis like just about every other topic in ancient history.

          I don’t know what to make of “early apostolic components” yet. I don’t know if the apostles were largely etiological inventions or real folk. Or if real folk, exactly what they did.

          As far as the coordination goes and convincing people to go along with “it”, — I don’t know what “it” is in this context, or even if there was an “it”. I think of certain explanations for the rise of “Judaism(s)” in the post Persian period and wonder if there are parallels there that might shed some light. But this is the question that intrigues me and I continue to explore. But I might be misunderstanding exactly what you are thinking of here when you ask that question — we might be thinking of different settings and time spans and of different concepts of “getting coordinated”.

  • steven carr
    2011-02-28 21:36:19 UTC - 21:36 | Permalink

    ‘I would be curious to know if there are other examples of legendary characters springing up out of nowhere over the course of a few decades’

    There are pictures of the Maitreya on the Internet. There are eyewitness reports of seeing him, and there are messages from the Maitreya on the Internet.

    The Maitreya does not exist. He was invented by Benjamin Creme.

    Of course, historicists tend to ignore the existence of totally invented religious people, as comparative religion is not a strong point of theirs.

    • 2011-02-28 22:02:05 UTC - 22:02 | Permalink

      I think you’re right in what you are suggesting, Steven. I am looking at antecedents in the Logos idea, the heavenly Son of Man idea etc etc — but whoever began to flesh out a narrative as per the gospels did it “suddenly”. And we do have examples of mythical ideas springing up very quickly in modern societies. Memes probably travelled just a little slower in ancient times.

      (Whoever told the first narrative of William Tell surely knew, as probably did their audience, that it was not true. I don’t believe that the author of Mark thought he was writing a true story, and I would be surprised if the original audience thought it was literally true, too. We have plenty of indicators within the gospel that it was meant to be understood symbolically. Part of the problem figuring all this out is that Mark was first associated with a non-orthodox Christianity – Basilideans – about whom not a great deal is reliably known.)

      • Evan
        2011-03-01 01:15:09 UTC - 01:15 | Permalink

        It needn’t be only modern societies. John Frum is still worshiped on Vanuatu.

  • M. W. Nordbakke
    2011-02-28 22:15:55 UTC - 22:15 | Permalink

    You wrote: “There is no historical inquiry comparable to: ‘Did Julius Caesar exist?’ That ought to tell us something about the nature of mainstream historical investigations…”

    There is an ongoing debate among classicists about the historicity of Homer, and what is certainly true is that participating in the discussion of Homer’s existence exposes you to fewer rude remarks and personal attacks on individuals than does the corresponding discussion of Jesus’ existence.

    This is not my field, but I imagine that the Homeric discussion may offer some parallels to the discussion of the authorship of the Pauline letters, as both discussions ultimately boil down to the fact that, in most ancient literatures, anonymity and pseudepigraphy are either the rule or at any rate commonplace. I recently enjoyed reading Martin Litchfield West’s essay, “The Invention of Homer” (Classical Quarterly, 1999, pp. 364-382). West notes that most people continue to use the name “Homer” and to assume that there was a real person of that name who had something to do with the creation of the Iliad. He then asks why we shouldn’t believe that a poet called Homer existed, “whatever exactly he did.” There are three possibilities:

    1. There was once a poet called Homer, and the “Homeridai” (a sixth-century company of rhapsodes) were named after him.
    2. There was no original Homer, the “Homeridai” were not named after a person, but, not knowing any better, they invented a Homer as their ancestor or founder.
    3. There was a Homer, but the “Homeridai” were not named after him, and came to think they were as a result of some confusion.

    West argues convincingly for the second option. In the Pauline case, one may similarly argue that the Marcionites and their predecessors invented Paul as their founder.

    • 2011-03-01 16:42:52 UTC - 16:42 | Permalink

      The question of the origins of the Homeric literature is an interesting comparison. The question is, rightly, an academic one. What best accounts for the Homeric literature? It is hardly question that involves life and death for any surviving cultural group. So all the options are open.

      Some scholars have even raised the question of the historicity of Socrates — again no big deal. The real question is seeking to account for or explain the literary references to Socrates (that looks at literary and cultural norms of the time) and also the rise of Western philosophy (how much is attributable to one man as opposed to a general development of the sophist “movement” at a certain time and place?)

      But once the same questions are applied to the Pauline corpus and Jesus, all hell breaks loose. The responses, we know, are not “academic”.

      All I am saying is that I don’t see why I can’t discuss Christian origins etc in the same open manner as historians discuss any other ancient topic. The reasons for the difference is obvious, of course. Being an atheist in this game, and questioning Jesus to boot, will mean everything I say is interpreted as if it emanates from some malicious or self-serving intent. It is ridiculous. Guys like JM and co like to boast how just like their peers in the sciences and history faculties they are, but their hostile responses belie those boasts.

  • Bernard
    2011-03-01 01:57:46 UTC - 01:57 | Permalink

    A legend who was created out of nothing was the Swedish American Lumber Jack Paul Bunyon. On the other hand such legendary figures as George Washington, Mike Fink, John Henry and Marshall Earp did have historical antecedents. One can go looking for David Crockett in “B” movies and 19th century pulp novels or dredge through dusty volumes of the Congressional Record and find notice of a clever career politician who knew a thing or about self promotion.
    By joining the mythicists I wonder if you have not jumped the shark, and have become a follower of Bultmann, since in effect you are giving form to a Jesus of faith who exists independantly of the Jesus of history. Gives me a headache like the first time I read essays by hard core believers who wrote of the christ and the jesus whoose body it ust temporarily occupied.
    Traces of the hostorical Jesus can be found, you just have to junk the Greek gospels and the accumulated nonsense associated with them , and start looking at Syriac Aramaic and Coptic texts and the text the theologians want to ignore, the ones their predessessors missed and did not consign to the flames, greek pagan texts and Nestorian texts. Unfortuantely only a few of these have been translated into modern Eurpoean languages.
    What you end up with is just another one of Josephus’ innovators and lestai who breifly cuased some trouble and after he really got annoying and the Roman supported theocrats could not keep him in his place, the Romans reacted and eliminated him. Then some of his followers started the posthumous propaganda mills and we ended up getting stuck with Christianity. While a late source, Lactantius tosses off a line that Jes was for all intents and purposes a leader of a large violent gang, and the Samaritan histories say much the same. A look at the Coptic and Mandean literature suggests that Jesus hijacked the John the Baptist sect much as Brigham Young hijacked Joseph Smiths sect and maid it his own.
    Jesus was just another messianic claimant in a long string of them from Judas the Galilean through Shabeti Zvy, the Mahdi and Jim Jones and the leader of the Southern Calfornia UFO death cult.
    They come on the scene , attract a fanatical following, stir p trouble and then flame out leaving behind a mess, that in some cases takes generations to clean up. If the movement persists it is because they had followers who figured out a way of turning it into something they could mild for their own advantage. Consider the Sceintiloie leadship who took over from its science fiction and fantasy writing founder Mr Hubbard, and are undoubtedly living the good life funded by the money that trickles up from the lowly believers.

    • 2011-03-01 16:50:14 UTC - 16:50 | Permalink

      Hi Bernard, I used to have some view of Jesus like this. It sounds plausible at first (of course, I would never have held the view otherwise 🙂 — but I’m a fanatic for detail (sometimes) and like to dig into things in some depth. The more I looked at the evidence the less I could see evidence for such a figure. But I take your point that the other gospels and texts beyond the canonical gospels are valid studies. I have lots of questions about what lies behind many of these, but am not sure how to articulate them all yet in a way that will make much sense. Still working on it.

  • 2011-03-01 09:26:02 UTC - 09:26 | Permalink

    Dear Neil,

    I read a recent post of yours in which you say something like you are giving up fighting the label mythicist.

    I think this is a mistake, and that you are inadvertently falling into a trap, and are facilitating traditionalists and apologists attempt to create/redefine words in a way that traps people into their world view.

    Take the two terms “mythicist” and “historicist”. To a totally unconcerned readers, a “mythicist” is one that studies or believes myths. A “historicist” is one that studies or adheres to history. What the traditionalists/apologists are attempting to do is completely reverse the common or normal understanding of the terms. By redefining these words they are redefining the discussion about Jesus legends.

    I would avoid both terms and instead say things like “I am a HISTORIAN that is interested in the JESUS LEGENDS”. Notice that this put emphasis on the fact that you are a HISTORIAN (as opposed to those that have degrees in NT theology, etc.. that put themselves forward incorrectly as historians, and you focus the discussion on this). Also using the term “JESUS LEGENDS” frames the issues as I think you would see it as historical research into the legendary accounts of a Jesus figure put forth by a religious group to determine their historicity).

    You might take the tact that you will generally believe the conclusions of the HISTORY industry, while allowing yourself the option of disagreeing with them when you think they have not made their case. But… we must start by gathering and becoming familiar with the HISTORIANS view on the subject).

    This is the tact I take with the scientific community. Because science and history is slightly different in that science can demonstrate it’s views, which makes repeated experimentation possible, it is slightly more complex, but… when the scientific community comes out and declares that “mirror neurons have been discovered”, I can generally say that I accept their view, unless I look specifically at it and find some specific fault with it. I would take the same tact with regards to history. I will generally say that I by default accept the findings of the history community, but reserve the option of disagreeing with their conclusions on specific issues, if I find their demonstration lacking.

    This again, highlights the difference between the history community and the religion community. I think that it is worth the effort to constantly remind the general reader that the religion community and the history community are NOT the same, and that there is a effort on the part of the religion community to attempt to speak for the history community that the general reader should be wary off.

    Cheers! http://RichGriese.NET/about

    • 2011-03-01 16:56:31 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

      Hi Rich, Agree with the bulk of your post totally. Quixie said something similar in a comment on another post: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/a-poll-just-for-curiositys-sake/#comment-15255 The whole idea of mythicists vs historicists is nice if one is looking to have an undergraduate or high school debate. But for serious investigations into Christian origins, what’s the point?

      Not sure though by your earlier remark about it being a mistake “fighting the mythicist label” being a mistake. I’m not exactly fighting it — or maybe I am — I do accept the label I suppose to keep things simple. But as you say, why not simply be someone interested in Christian origins? Labeling does not really advance collegial collaborative etc inquiry.

      • 2011-03-01 18:04:16 UTC - 18:04 | Permalink

        I was referring to when you posted this; “So I finally realized it is less confusing if I do not attempt to disown the label “mythicist”.”

        I guess I summarized that as “I read a recent post of yours in which you say something like you are giving up fighting the label mythicist.”

        Th point of my post as I am sure you realized that not just you, but every sane person should avoid the traditioinalist/apologist faulty creation of these terms.

        BTW… not sure if you have even looked them up but there already exists a term “historicist” which has a specific meaning that has nothing to do with what the traditionalists/apologists are trying to reframe it as. See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicist

        The attempt to name terms in to nonsense, to make mythicists into people that don’t believe myths, and historicists into people that do believe myths, is a standard tactic of the religion industry. I am simply encouraging you not to fall for it. It is a standard part of Christian apologetics. To them it is double plus good. When words no longer have maning, everyone can be sold their supernaturalistic nonsense.

        Cheers! http://RichGriese.NET/about

  • 2011-03-01 18:37:25 UTC - 18:37 | Permalink

    Thanks, Understood now. As for the term “historicist” I held off from using it for a long time because it does have various philosophical meanings. I think it was after seeing Thomas L. Thompson use it in reference to assumptions about the historical Jesus that I took licence to use it the same way, too.

    • 2011-03-01 18:42:56 UTC - 18:42 | Permalink

      Dear Neil,

      Not just in philosophy, but even in Christianity. See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicist#Christian_historicism

      In Christianity, the term historicism refers to the confessional Protestant form of prophetical interpretation which holds that the fulfillment of biblical prophecy has taken place throughout history and continues to take place today; as opposed to other methods which limit the time-frame of prophecy-fulfillment to the past or to the future. The historicist method is what led reformers throughout Europe to declare that the Pope was the man of sin sitting on the seven hills of Rome. Examples of famous Christians and Protestant denominations declaring the pope to be the antichrist include the Waldensians, Albigenses, Lollards, Lutherans, Calvinists, Hussians, and a host of individuals, including the father of the modern English Bible William Tyndale and even articles of faith such as the original Westminster Confession of Faith.

      Cheers! http://RichGriese.NET/about

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