by Neil Godfrey
This post is a continuation of Earl Doherty’s responses to James McGrath’s Menu of Answers to Mythicists. The first installment, items 1 to 6, was posted here. Earl Doherty continues with menu item #7, preceding each of his responses with McGrath’s description in bold italics.
Menu Entrée #7:
“Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed means showing there are good reasons to think that he did, not that it is impossible for anyone to construct a scenario in which it might have been otherwise. Historical study offers probabilities, not absolute certainties.”
Let’s break down this entrée and do a taste test on its ingredients:
(1) Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed requires showing that there are good reasons for thinking so.
(2) Demonstrating the likelihood that someone existed does not require showing that no scenarios are possible which could suggest that he did not.
(3) The implication is that this particular historical study is able to demonstrate that No. 1 can be shown to be more probable than any counter scenario envisioned in No. 2.
If No. 3 is true, then there ought to be many scholarly studies and books to demonstrate the strength of the historicist position and discredit the mythicist one, especially in the last dozen years when mythicism has undergone a surge of advocacy and public popularity. No. 2 is in principle logically valid, but requires a concrete demonstration of No. 3, which has just been noted as not forthcoming; hopefully, it is not meant as a claim that addressing mythicist scenarios at all is not necessary because No. 1 is axiomatic— something which, regrettably, seems to be pretty much the attitude of mainstream scholarship in general. Again, this entrée is the statement of an abstract principle. It, too, lacks any nourishing content to sustain the viability of historicism.
Menu Entrée #8:
“Raising doubts about historicity is not the same thing as demonstrating ahistoricity. Just asking ‘what if’ questions is not the same thing as trying to construct a positive historical case. That you can imagine a scenario in which Jesus was invented does not constitute proof that your scenario is the most likely based on available evidence, much less that it describes what actually happened.”
Who has decided the difference between “raising doubts” and “demonstrating”? Who sets the bar for reaching the required level for “probability”? The historicist who automatically relegates all mythicist scenarios to the realm of “imagination”? The one who refuses to see any mythicist offering as a “positive historical case” rather than just “what if” questions? The one who shuts the door on any view that Jesus never existed rather than allow it into the hall for proper examination?
Considering that the endless and fruitless quests for the “real” historical Jesus swing back and forth from one “what if” scenario to another, with few constraints on historicist scholars’ own imaginations (since they possess ever fewer reliable indicators within the Gospels—and virtually none whatever from the early Christian non-Gospel record—as to who or what Jesus was, what he did, what he taught, let alone having any evidence that the world took any notice of him), such exercises raise as much doubt about the very existence of such a figure as do the mythicists with their alternate scenarios.
Are historicists really claiming that a non-Gospel record which has nothing to say about an historical incarnation but speaks of Christ as being “revealed” by God, plus a Gospel ‘record’ which has been pared down to virtually nothing that can be relied on as historical memory rather than scripture-based concoction, plus an external record which shows no cognizance of this ever more obscure character—that this constitutes compelling evidence for their “scenario (which) is the most likely based on available evidence,” and “more likely describes what actually happened” than mythicist scenarios which are based on what the texts actually give us?
Menu Entrée #9:
“Take seriously the fact that Paul wrote letters to Christian communities. The letter part is important – writing materials were expensive, and Paul was not writing Gospels. The audience is also important – Paul wrote to people who already had enough knowledge about Jesus to share his belief in him as Messiah and Lord.”
Regrettably, there is nothing in this entrée which a thousand eateries before the Matrix have offered as their much-touted culinary fare. The textures are mushy, the flavors weak and tired, the sauces runny and thin. The epistles, they say, are occasional writings and don’t have any occasion or need to discuss the historical figure, let alone what he said or what he did; the entire body of uncoordinated Christian congregations spread across half the empire already knew within 20 years everything that Jesus taught and all the events of his life; Paul, because he was not writing biography, had no interest in mentioning the earthly Jesus or avoided it for personal reasons (something apparently the case with all the other early writers as well); the epistle’s cosmic language about the Son is really an “interpretation” of Jesus of Nazareth even though they never mention the object of that interpretation. To this tired old recipe of slapdash ingredients is added a pinch of Paul being short of space and writing materials and didn’t want to waste paper, a shortage that seems to have been endemic across the early Christian world.
Well, no matter what one styles these literary works, they are usually discussing the writers’ faith, often its genesis, and occasionally its sources of teaching and practice. Outside the Gospels and Acts, there are roughly 80,000 words in the documents of the New Testament. In not a single case (excluding the widely-regarded interpolation of 1 Thess. 2:15-16) do any first-century writers of this diverse material make it clear that the object of their faith was a human being who had recently lived, whose acts were performed in Palestine or any other place on earth, who had begun the movement by appointing apostles and establishing a preaching gospel which those apostles represented as coming from him. Those letters witness to crucial and disruptive debates within the movement, debates which should have been settled by the teachings of Jesus on earth (genuine or placed in his mouth, as the Gospels would unabashedly do), debates which show that knowledge of what Jesus had said and done was anything but well known to Christian congregations. The paltry few appeals by Paul known as “words of the Lord” are judged by many historicist scholars to have been communications imagined from Christ in heaven, and Paul’s language bears that out. These are the “facts” that need to be taken seriously, because they are inexplicable in a context of historicism.
Menu Entrée #10:
“Don’t just fixate on things Paul doesn’t say. Notice the impression given by what he does say: Born, descended from David, crucified, bled, buried. Little detail about Paul’s views about Jesus as a human figure is not the same as no details at all.”
If anyone is fixating, it is historicists who desperately appeal to a small handful of ambiguous references in the epistles as much-needed lifesavers in the face of not only a vast flood of silence on an historical Jesus whom we ought to expect would appear all over the place, but a wealth of positive descriptions of the faith movement and its object of worship which effectively exclude an historical figure on earth. Mythicists approach the case from a different direction. An analysis of the documents indicates the strong likelihood of no historical Jesus; then we turn to that handful of alleged counter-indicators and ask if there are other ways of interpreting them. As it happens, virtually all of them can fit into the mythicist mold, while a couple enjoy a good possibility of interpolation.
Historicists are like the naïve wife who finds herself alone many evenings while her husband works late, notices lipstick on his collar, surreptitious phone calls, credit card bills for flowers she never received; but when he rolls over one night in his sleep and whispers “Darling” in her ear, she happily concludes that he loves her and is undoubtedly faithful.
Menu Entrée #11:
“If the fact that pretty much every professional historian and scholar disagrees with you about the historicity of Jesus doesn’t concern you, then you are not giving this subject more serious consideration than the proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design give to biology and evolution. It is true that all the experts can be wrong, but it is also true that rarely, when all the experts are wrong, do people without expertise just happen to be right.”
Sooner or later we were going to get the old culinary staple, the Appeal to Authority, on the Matrix Menu. First of all, I am aware of no professional historian outside the New Testament field who has investigated the matter one way or the other, while professional NT scholars have their own reasons for automatically assuming and defending the historicist position. Moreover, mythicism has an almost two-century long history of being put forward by scholars of all stripes, professional and amateur. The latter is used in the technical sense, which does not mean that they have no expertise, but have gained it outside the halls of traditional biblical academia. Entrée # 15 on the Menu refuses to recognize that, and is simply a haughty dismissal of anyone outside the privileged club. Entrée # 18 can also be brought in here, which concludes: “…the rule being that historians agree with mythicists no more than New Testament scholars do.”
The best way to answer this is to quote from my website rebuttal article on “Alleged Refutations to Jesus Mythicism”:
A typical example is historian Michael Grant, who in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (1977), devotes a few paragraphs to the question in an Appendix. There [p.200], he says:
“To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars’. In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”
One will note that Grant’s statement about answering and annihilating, and the remark about serious scholars, are in quotes, and are in fact the opinions of previous writers. Clearly, Grant himself has not undertaken his own ‘answer’ to mythicists. Are those quoted writers themselves scholars who have undertaken such a task, even if they work in the biblical field? In fact, they are not. One referenced writer, Rodney Dunkerley, in his Beyond the Gospels (1957, p.12), devotes a single paragraph to the “fantastic notion” that Jesus did not actually live; its exponents, he says, “have again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars,” but since he declares it “impossible to summarize those scholars’ case here,” he is not the source of Grant’s conviction.
Nor can that be Otto Betz, from whose What Do We Know About Jesus? (1968, p.9) Grant takes his second quote. Betz claims that since Wilhelm Bousset published an essay in 1904 exposing the ‘Christ myth’ as “a phantom,” “no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.” This ignores many serious presentations of that very idea since Bousset, and evidently relies on defining “serious” as excluding anyone who would dare to undertake such a misguided task.
Considering that the number of “cases” actually produced over the last century by mainstream scholars to “annihilate” mythicism can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and all of them easily countered (see the above website article which addresses them all), one can forgive mythicists for regarding this delusional claim as being as much a myth as Jesus himself.
Menu Entrée #12:
“As long as mythicists seem to agree with one another on almost nothing except the ahistoricity of Jesus, please stop treating it as an argument for mythicism that historians agree on little apart from his existence.”
If a person or event was real and historical, there should be a good chance for
professional historians to come to at least some degree of common reliable knowledge about it. If the opposite is the case, that the person or event previously regarded as real was in fact not historical, it can be more challenging to demonstrate this and more difficult to agree upon the nature of the alternatives. (One is also bucking established opinion and stubborn resistance from those with a vested interest in the old paradigm.) We might also note a similar principle applying in ancient times. If Jesus existed and impelled the movement in his name, we would expect that those who came after would agree on at least the basics about him. Yet this is anything but the actual situation we encounter in the Christian documentary record.
More to follow . . . . .