What mythicists need is a competent, knowledgeable and intelligent historicist to challenge them. One who doesn’t resort to ad hominem or outright insult. One who doesn’t see “mythicism” in every nook and cranny — whether in creationism or the Piltdown man or even Shakespeare! — wherever he or she even half way suspects he/she just might possibly find it.
Recently I responded to one scholar who has picked up the anti-mythicist cause when he wrote:
There is no more circularity (and no less) in investigating a historical Jesus than a historical Socrates or John the Baptist or Shakespeare.
I disagreed. I had referred to statements by historical Jesus scholars who have had the intellectual honesty to concede the circularity of their enterprise. (I have posted on these several times now — quotations by Albert Schweitzer, Stevan Davies and Dale C. Allison.)
I had pointed out that the evidence for the historicity of Socrates is not circular and referred to my earlier posts demonstrating this simple fact. We have multiple independent contemporary sources for the existence of Socrates — at least one from a devoted pupil and another from a scoffing playwright, one from a friend and one from a(n apparent) foe — and so the probability for the historical existence of Socrates is at least positive. Schweitzer lamented the fact that we have no comparable evidence for the historicity of Jesus since all the sources for Jesus are traced back to
the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (p. 402, 2001 edition of Quest)
On the question of Shakespeare I said that no-one doubts the existence of Shakespeare. After all, if we had the tangible evidences for Jesus that we have for Shakespeare’s existence — details learned in the upper high schools of probably most Anglo-English speaking countries (maybe not the U.S.?) — we would have no Christ Myth debate at all.
Unfortunately (from my perspective) none of these rejoinders carried any weight at all with my interlocutor. They were not even addressed. I don’t mind so much if my arguments are found wanting as a result of being dissected and pulled apart intestinal thread by intestinal cord (okay, that hurts, but hey, it’s “GOOD” for me!). But I am left with no reason to abandon my position unless my position is tackled and dissected full on.
My interlocutor recently asked me this:
Do you understand and acknowledge that if a historian happens across your blog they will not be impressed with what they find there, and will not find your approach and your claims representative of what they do as historians?
To which I replied:
Well, no. I say that because a number of professional scholars have contacted me and expressed the very opposite. I have sometimes discussed their own books on my blog — that’s when they sometimes contact me. Some are nonhistorians. Some are historians. Most are not even mythicists but some have expressed sympathy or interest in the mythicist concept.
Further, what I have said about historical methods is nothing bizarre or unusual at all. It is copied straight from what historians themselves have written, and from some biblical scholars, too.
Sure there will be some who disagree and I have had debates on my blog and in some cases I have realized in the past I may have overstated some aspects but I have over time worked more closely to a more balanced explanation as a result of those discussions.
I also concede — and have written about this too — that some who write history don’t even think about some of these things because they are so embedded in the culture and taken for granted. Sometimes bringing them out into the open forces a re-think and can be a bit confronting at first.
I only arrived at my own point of view after a lot of thinking: How DO we know about the past? And that led me to think over all the history I had studied, the various schools of thought, and to compare this with the nonsense ideas that are out there. Few others have really stopped to think these things through systematically.
I should clarify that not all scholars whose books I have discussed on my blog have contacted me. Not at all. Only some.
But another aspect of this whole scenario that I find instructive is this: When I first started this blog it was not too long before scholars, some of them who preferred to remain masked beneath the pen-names they used on other internet forums, contributed positively to the comments on my posts. But once others on the internet labelled me as persona non gratis (“mythicist”) they disappeared — at least from the public comments. (I have continued to receive favourable and encouraging correspondence from biblical and other scholars privately.) So it was immediately clear to me that image was more important than the substance of the “mythicist” debate.
So what I would really love more than anything else (at least apart from my professional or domestic life) is this:
A scholar, a historian preferably (though even more preferably one who is a “historian” by virtue of studies unrelated to theology!) to talk with about methodology in history – any history from von Ranke to Hayden White — who is willing to take a little time to critique what I have discussed on this blog and elsewhere. But failing that, even a theologian who believes he or she is divinely or otherwise qualified to speak as a historian would do. But there is one condition. Civility. I do not have time for the boorish (sorry, tim/spin/judge/observer or whoever you are!).