2011-11-26

A rational foundation for investigating the mythicist (and Christian origins) question

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by Neil Godfrey

I have been attempting to engage a biblical scholar in a discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of how historians can know if an event or person in ancient times were truly historical or a mere fiction.

Here was my initial proposition:

The theoretical underpinning of the historicity or factness of the contents of any report, document or narrative is that those contents can at some level be independently corroborated. This is a truism we learned as children: don’t believe everything you hear. This theoretical principle operates in our legal systems, in our media reporting culture, in our research investigations, in our everyday lives.

Let’s take a birth certificate as a case study. This contains information about the parents and birth time and place of a person, but also official seals or stamps and logos and names of the issuing authority in order to establish its authenticity. People who invented birth certificates recognized the need for independent corroboration of the contents contained in it, so they decided to add all this sort of information to it to make it more than just a blank piece of paper (that anyone could have written) saying so and so was born to x and y at this place here, etc.

Now let’s take the Romance of Alexander as another example. Only this time let’s imagine that we have absolutely no other references of any kind to Alexander surviving from ancient times before the appearance of this Romance. No coins, no epigraphy, no other histories, no other references anywhere to Alexander. Let’s imagine all other evidence of Alexander only began to appear well after the Romance. We don’t know who wrote this Romance and we only know the earliest evidence of it is from the third century.

If we had only the Alexander Romance in these circumstances, we would have absolutely no reason to assume the historicity of Alexander. Some people might suspect the tale is based on a historical memory, and wonder if the tale’s knowledge of the name of the Persian king and place names in Persia was evidence it was a true story after all. Others would withhold judgment and acknowledge that historical persons and places often appear in ancient fiction. Some would deny it outright.

But let’s say archaeologists uncover a manuscript that they have reason to date to the period in which the Alexander Romance were composed. And imagine this manuscript tells another tale about Alexander and refers to an event or two we already know from the Romance. Would that fact give us reason to think that Alexander was indeed historical after all? Of course not. All it would mean is that the two authors knew about a similar tale and maybe they belonged to a common school of some sort.

Now this is not an exact analogy. I know from other posts you appreciate that analogies are never exact in all details, but I am sure you will be able to appreciate the principle that is being illustrated here.

In the case of Jesus we have only one source of tradition, Christianity itself. External references independent of Christianity only emerge well after the supposed time of Jesus, and they are all arguably in response to what those later Christians themselves were saying.

Now some might say that if the Alexander Romance were written in the genre of historiography, then that would lend support to the historicity of Alexander. Yes, it would be a tick in favour of historicity, but it would not be conclusive. We do know of historical genres peddling much outright fiction. Besides, Burridge’s argument for the biographical genre of the gospels lacks any theoretical foundation or methodology for assigning a work to a particular genre, unlike Vines’ work that is grounded in genre theory.

We have no primary evidence for Jesus, and by primary evidence I mean evidence that is itself physically located in the time and place in question. We have only secondary evidence, which by its nature must always be treated differently from primary evidence. That is not to dismiss secondary evidence at all, but it is particularly important to understand its provenance and purpose, etc in order to know how to interpret it.

Now someone may wish to bypass all of the above argument and point to Paul’s statement in Galatians about the brother of the Lord. Yet as even some who have argued against mythicism have had the integrity to acknowledge, for a number of reasons that is not at all conclusive evidence for the historicity of Jesus. I don’t need to repeat those (historicists’!!) arguments now.

The above methodology is merely an elaboration of what other biblical scholars since (and before) Schweitzer and others have acknowledged, and is an elaboration of the approaches to documentary and narrative evidence that other historians generally take for granted.

It does not support mythicism or historicism. It means the evidence requires us to start with an agnostic position. Historicism is no more justified as a starting premise than is mythicism.

Unfortunately for me this was not persuasive. It elicited only a sarcastic response and a demand for analogies that conformed to a caricature of one particular mythicist argument.

Chastened, I attempted to re-present my argument without any analogies or illustrative material at all. This time it would be strictly conceptual. The initial paragraphs in teal are introductory responses to my academic critic:

My argument is about a methodology and NOT an argument for mythicism. It is entirely an attempt to make explicit what is very often only implicit (but by no means always) in the way many historians evaluate evidence.

If my methodology was an argument itself for mythicism then it would be a self-serving rationalization and not a methodology at all. So I am encouraged by your criticism. It shows that the methodology is just what it should be: independent of mythicism or historicism. That is the whole point of my argument. It is not an indication I am being dishonest at all. That is exactly the point I am wanting to make and that deeply interests me.

You imply I am being dishonest because my argument does not support mythicism or Doherty. But if my argument did support mythicism or Doherty it would be a useless rationalization and not an argument about methodology as you rightly realize.

Did you read my last two paragraphs? Here they are again in case you missed them.

The above methodology is merely an elaboration of what other biblical scholars since (and before) Schweitzer and others have acknowledged, and is an elaboration of the approaches to documentary and narrative evidence that other historians generally take for granted.

It does not support mythicism or historicism. It means the evidence requires us to start with an agnostic position. Historicism is no more justified as a starting premise than is mythicism.

But the details of analogies and examples are distracting you despite my warning against this in my comment, so let me present here the principle of my argument without analogies or illustrations.

The theoretical underpinning of the factness of the contents of a narrative is independent corroboration at some level. Yes. It’s very simple. That’s the first point.

That’s most basic and not to be dismissed. If we say the contents of a narrative are true because the narrative itself seems to ring true or because no-one dishonest would have written it or because it contains realistic settings and details or because we believe it was passed down by long tradition from the event narrated, then we are merely reasoning in a circle. We are saying the narrative is true because we can think of reasons it would be true.

That’s why I speak of controls. We need to find a way to break this circle if we are to have a valid reason for arguing the contents of the narrative might be historical.

So I also addressed primary and secondary evidence. Evidence that appears some time after the event (that is, is not contemporary with the event) must by necessity be afforded a different value than evidence that is contemporary with the event.

Yes, sometimes secondary evidence can be more accurate than contemporary evidence which may be less accurate propaganda. But such cases need to be established on a case by case basis.

So independent corroboration that is contemporary is the most powerful evidence of all. I could give you examples but fear these will distract from the principle being addressed here.

In other words, the contents of a narrative need controls of some sort if they are to be established as having been “true” or non-fiction reality.

As the word “control” itself suggests, controlling evidence must itself not be subject to question. Otherwise it can hardly serve as a “control”. To the extent that it is open to question the strength of it as a control is compromised and the case for factness is reduced exponentially.

I am avoiding giving examples for fear that they will distract you from the principles I am expressing here.

By controls we mean the sort of independent corroboration that is contemporary with the supposed event of the narrative. If our corroboration is secondary and not primary evidence we need to be more cautious.

Now it goes without saying that we have no primary evidence for Jesus. But that is not in and of itself decisive against historicity. We have no primary evidence for other figures that are regarded as historical, too. But in those cases we do have controls for the secondary evidence. In such cases the contents of narratives in the secondary evidence are afforded a positive probability of historicity because of these controls. Those controls are both secure and independent sources of corroboration.

I am avoiding examples and analogies in order not to distract from the principles.

And this is why Albert Schweitzer himself said that when we address theoretical methodological underpinnings of what establishes the historicity of a figure, we have no controls in order to give Jesus even a positive probability.

Now of course Schweitzer was not a mythicist. He made that remark after addressing at length, without insults and with reasoned arguments that demonstrated a knowledge of the arguments of those he was addressing, the mythicists of his day.

So can you address the principles I have attempted to raise here without resorting to insulting accusations against my honesty or sincerity or suggestions that I do not know what my own argument is?

If I lean to mythicism it is because the starting point of methodological foundations allows me to begin my investigation by being truly agnostic about the historicity of Jesus. From this starting point we can begin our investigations on truly neutral ground.

If we subsequently conclude historicism or mythicism it will not be because we have approached the question with our minds made up to begin with. And if we do come down on the side of historicism then it will be on stronger grounds than the logically fallacious reliance upon one sole source for Jesus, Christianity itself. We will have found a way to avoid circular argument.

This prompted an even more depressing series of responses. Now I had not even presented an argument for a methodology nor even any principles at all — nothing at all to which the scholar could respond! I admit I was befuddled.

So, thinking that perhaps the word “methodology” was way too pretentious for what really at base were nothing more than a few truisms I thought I should climb down a peg or two and try to explain that I was willing to give up such ostentatious labels:

If you don’t like the word methodology then I am quite happy to argue my point without reference to the word. Let’s just call it “Schweitzer’s maxim” or “Historical Evaluation of Sources 101” or “Avoiding Circularity in Historiography” or simply “Neil’s argument” if you’d rather.

I have expressed the problem of circularity and the need for controls to avoid this in order to establish whether or not a figure can be deemed historical or not, or with some in-between degree of probability.

What is wrong with this argument? These principles? To the best of my ability I have drawn on the works of other historians and biblical scholars and my own reflections on my knowledge of historical studies to try to make explicit what is very often operating at the implicit level in historical studies.

Now, is my logic flawed? Is my argument flawed? Do you agree with the principles expressed?

This led to a response that I could only interpret as a provocative taunt if it truly came from a person of above average intelligence:

Are you saying that you think that because you used “the problem of circularity”, for instance, in a sentence, that that constitutes an articulation of a method and its theoretical framework?

So I lamely replied with this:

I am simply raising a series of points and asking if you agree with them. Do you?

It’s as simple and straightforward as that.

No hidden agenda.

I am simply trying to show you what I base my whole approach to Christian origins upon. The starting logical principles.

You know that some of your own peers acknowledge the circularity of their methods. I am merely making explicit how circularity can be avoided.

Your fear of giving a straightforward response wouldn’t have anything to do with a fear of conceding that someone who leans towards mythicism is actually capable of a straightforward and sound logical argument, would it?

The conversation has continued and not got beyond that point. The scholar simply refuses to say if he agrees with my points above or not. I have also asked him to explain to me where my points might be invalid, erroneous, flawed, etc but at this stage it appears that the scholar cannot or is unwilling to answer.

So let me continue with where I would have liked the argument to have gone.

What this means in practice

Once we establish the need to avoid circularity, and the simple fact that the historical Jesus quest has been grounded in methodological circularity as several of its participants acknowledge, then we have a choice. Either we accept the circularity and merely try to find a plausible jump-in point. Or we accept the fact of circularity inherent in the situation of working with sources that lack controls and try a completely different approach.

The latter approach acknowledges that when working with the question of Christian origins our sources are theological-faith tracts in the form of letters and narratives. That sounds trite at first so let me try to be clear.

We do not start with evidence about Jesus, his life and death, etc. We start with stories and faith documents about Jesus. The difference might seem subtle at first but it is crucial.

What is generally referred to in the literature as “evidence about Jesus” is actually a narrative about Jesus, and not only mere narrative, but a narrative without controls. It is a mere story.

How do we know it is a true story or based on a true story?

Think of the Alexander Romance above and the hypothetical scenario I ascribed to it.

We don’t. We can’t know. We have no way of knowing because we have no controls for the contents of this narrative.

We do know that there are historical details in the narrative such as the governor Pilate and the city of Jerusalem. But we know even ancient novellas contain names of historical kings, generals, cities, customs, etc.

So what is the way forward to using this narrative validly, without circular assumptions about the historicity of its contents, in an investigation of Christian origins?

The valid response is to study the narrative as a narrative per se. That is, not as a window to the historical truth supposedly behind it, but as a literary construct.

That is, after all, what it most immediately and actually is. A literary construct. Lacking controls we cannot begin with the assumption that that literary construct is a window to real historical events. It might be a parable, a midrash, a theological myth, or it might even be an attempt at genuine historical memory. Even if a parable or a midrash it might still be based on historical memories or traditions. So we are not closing our minds to historicism and we are not beginning with a presumption of either mythicism or historicism.

We are beginning with the evidence as it actually is: a literary construct. Its Jesus and events are all literary. That is a simple statement of fact. If this literary figure of Jesus is also an expression or representation of a real historical person then we do not yet know that. That is a view to be argued, as is any other interpretation. It cannot be validly assumed except as a hypothetical proposition.

So the question to be explored is this: How best to account for the contents of the narrative or faith documents of earliest Christianity?

Now that opens up the question to a whole new set of possibilities for Christian origins. It opens up the way to placing literary and theological and other explanations on an equal footing with the one possibility that has been considered thus far.

If the most satisfactory explanation does indeed, for some, turn out to be a literal historical core to the narrative contents, then at least that will have to be argued for valid reasons and not be taken as a default position in a circular enterprise.

  • 2011-11-27 04:27:57 UTC - 04:27 | Permalink

    These discussions go round and round. People who think that Jesus Christ was a historical human being think that the available evidence is sufficient, and you disagree. Those people think that establishment and subsequent growth of the Christian Church constitute significant historical evidence, because the first Christians must have had much convincing information that was lost to later generations. You reject that line of reasoning and so you reject evidence that your opponents consider to be essential.

    It seems to me that intelligent people can and do evaluate the evidence about Jesus in either manner.

    There are juries that listen to all the same evidence and that end up as hung juries, with intelligent members of the jury voting guilty and intelligent members of the same jury voting non-guilty.

    For me, the decisive consideration is that all the New Testament’s epistles (and Revelations) seem to be written by people who have no information about anything that Jesus Christ ever did or said as a human-like being on Earth. For me, that is the best evidence, which then guides me in evaluating all the other evidence,

    However, I respect people who argue that the epistles indeed do contain indications that the writers understood Jesus Christ to be a historical person and who therefore use the epistles are significant evidence that Jesus Christ was a historical person. We all look at the same epistles, and we understand them differently, and we consider them to be essential evidence for our own conclusions.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      2011-11-27 05:10:02 UTC - 05:10 | Permalink

      Well said. The Jesus figure started as a kind of Gnostic entity, the Gospel-writers brought him down to earth, and then the Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church had the job of reconciling both, by inventing the sophisticated theory of the “two natures” of Jesus Christ, one human and terrestrial, the other divine and celestial (Council of Chalcedon, 451). It took 400 years of speculation and debate by hundreds of Christian scholars to devise a solution to the enigma.
      This allowed such extraordinary legerdemain as reconciling the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, where the Spirit visits Jesus in the form of a dove, in Mark 1:9-12, with the dogma of the Trinity, where the Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father and from the Son” (Council of Constantinople, 381), with the famous “filioque” addition. Jesus, in his human nature, is visited by the Spirit as a dove, who is another form of his godly “nature”. And this is the kind of abstruse construction that Christians are fed to believe. This goes well beyond any decent fairy tale. This is “mystery”.

  • ROO BOOKAROO
    2011-11-27 04:38:26 UTC - 04:38 | Permalink

    I hate to make a comment to something that is so close to Neil’s heart.

    This kind of approach is far too abstract for modern American apologists. This assumes that they have the mental capacity for analysis as Schweitzer did. But they don’t have the background of German thoroughness (that they call “Gründlichkeit”). So they will not admit what Schweitzer was willing, in all honesty, to admit.
    Any admission on their parts would be used and reused against them and ruin their reputation.

    So, what is to be hoped from a debate with the likes of Anne Rice, Chrisopher Price, Dinesh D’Souza, J. P. Holding /Robert Turkel, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Michael Licona, William Lane Craig, and so many other popular apologists?
    They will never agree to any of your methodology axioms, since they know too well where they lead to, and where you want to lead them to.

    An agnostic conclusion leaving historicism and mythicism open is not acceptable, because these apologists start from a historicist base and they are not willing to abandon it, as their whole professional reputation, prestige and income power rely on it. Much better to be known as a confirmed apologist than an agnostic on “methodology” grounds. And better to be known as a confirmed “mythicist.” A firm position in one of the two extremes is where social power and income potential are. The middle ground is too wishy-washy to be more than a personal phase of self-interrogation and uncertainty, and has no crowd-pleasing potential, which is key when your life and income rest on successful books.

    The gist of your argument, in simple words is this:

    “We do not start with evidence about Jesus, his life and death, etc. We start with stories and faith documents about Jesus.
    What is generally referred to in the literature as “evidence about Jesus” is actually a narrative about Jesus, and not only mere narrative, but a narrative without controls. It is a mere story.
    How do we know it is a true story or based on a true story?
    We don’t. We can’t know. We have no way of knowing because we have no controls for the contents of this narrative.
    We do know that there are historical details in the narrative such as the governor Pilate and the city of Jerusalem. But we know even ancient novellas contain names of historical kings, generals, cities, customs, etc.
    So what is the way forward to using this narrative validly, without circular assumptions about the historicity of its contents, in an investigation of Christian origins?
    The valid response is to study the narrative as a narrative per se. That is, not as a window to the historical truth supposedly behind it, but as a literary construct.
    That is, after all, what it most immediately and actually is. A literary construct.”

    Now, none of the apologists mentioned above, who is in his/her right mind, is going to admit this.
    It is an excellent subject for a lively debate where the debaters are paid good fees, but otherwise it is not going to lead anywhere in terms of winning an argument.
    The only real, valuable, fall-out is in the doubts planted in some anonymous listeners.
    Although more doubters or fence-sitters have testified that their doubts were initially planted by provocative books than any debating online or on TV.

    That is where the popular critics, such as Bart Ehrman, Bob Price, Earl Doherty, Murdock, Alvar Ellegard, Elaine Pagels, Freke and Gandy, Luigi Cascioli, your own Vardis Fisher (if anybody still reads him), but also the more learned ones such as G. A, Wells, Geza Vermes, Harold Liedner, Herbert Cutner, Hyam Maccoby, John Loftus, John Spong, Michael Martin, Randel Helms, Rene Salm, Thomas Thompson, Frank Zindler, are so powerful and valuable because of their concrete arguments and frontal attacks.
    Without forgetting all the older critics of historicism who adopted the same tack of not beating around the bush, like Edward Gibbon, Gilbert Murray, Baron d’Holbach, Edwin Johnson, Foote & Wheeler, John Remsberg, and the great Joseph Wheless, who is so readable and eminently quotable.
    All those critics, modern and less modern, have no qualms attacking head front the key axioms of established Christianity, and, in one way or another, they manage to shake the very foundations of the unquestioned beliefs of many uncritical believers. Awakening the critical mode of inquiry and of assessing whatever is alleged as facts has been so far the successful method to undermine the great fable of Jesus and the immense and abstruse construction of Christianity.

  • 2011-11-27 06:25:30 UTC - 06:25 | Permalink

    Without agreement on sources and methods, there will never be a consensus on the conclusions. It seems a little odd that a respected professor would be co reticent about methodology. A good craftsman should be proud of his tools.

    BTW, I’m looking forward to Ehrman’s new book, which I’ve pre-ordered. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I fear we will get more of the same.

    Has anyone read Price’s new work, “The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems”? I’ve been wondering if it covers any new ground.

  • 2011-11-27 07:10:19 UTC - 07:10 | Permalink

    Well it’s been an interesting ride (and yes, it really was enjoyable, too) with the Good Doctor. (I think he would like being called The Doctor given his deep love of Dr Who.)

    He finally responded to my questions even if it was obliquely and in a comment to an intellectual companion (one who has introduced him in the past to a curious concept he calls “Shakespeare mythicism”) rather than directly to me.

    The whole exercise gave me a sounding board to help me hone my own arguments a little more. It always helps to have a sounding board or foil of some kind, and I was finding it hard to get started with my post till I had that interesting exchange.

    The first thing that one observes in his reply is that he has difficulty with grasping the concept of circular argument in the way it is used even by his peers such as Professors Dale C. Allison and Stevan Davies. This is not surprising and something I have suspected for some time.

    I had been asking him repeatedly to address my argument about method as it was encapsulated in the Socrates case-study. (Socrates is used because his historical status is comparable to that of Jesus. The surviving evidence for Socrates presents some problematic questions but it is simple enough to be used for comparative purposes. We have ostensibly contemporary sources from “traditions” independent of each other testifying to Socrates’ existence.) The Doctor finally revealed he did not accept the logic of the argument — he did not even understand the concept of the argument. He could only focus on the word “playwright” itself. But a playwright might be using Socrates as a fictional character, he protests. Exactly. So how do we know? We have the independent testimony of those who claimed to be devoted pupils of Socrates. This argument is quite beyond him and sadly suggests a problematic state of biblical or theological studies at least in parts of the U.S.

    So The Doctor does not accept the logic of the Socrates illustration. He cannot. To do so would imply the acceptance of the circularity underpinning the whole HJ enterprise — and agreement with Dr Schweitzer’s “maxim”:

    Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go 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.

    The only response the Doctor has ever made to this Schweitzer quote, to my knowledge, is that I repeat it too often — “tiresomely”.

    The Doctor has also been jumping through hoops to avoid responding to my question as to whether he accepts the logic of my propositions as I have expressed in the post above. He has been suggesting that what I write is too simple and not worthy of a response so has demanded something more complex and on grand scholarly scale.

    And King Herod summoned Jesus and demanded of him some great miracle and sign from heaven. But Jesus confounded him by the simplicity and truth of his mere presence. So Herod, enraged, sent him away.

    I put it to the Doctor that the reason he is unable to give a straightforward answer to my simple question about whether or not he accepts some simple truisms is that they have caught him in a double bind:

    And the Pharisees consulted with themselves and said:

    (a) If we say ‘no’ to his question, then we will look complete fools because all the people can see the simple logical truth of his argument — as he himself says, they are mere truisms;

    (b) If we say ‘yes’ to his question, then we will have to concede what we have denied all along and that we cannot afford to admit if we are to maintain our reputation — that our whole enterprise of HJ studies really is based on circularity.

    It was refreshing to also see the Doctor being honest enough at least to imply that he preferred the use of “tools” by which he means criteriology in HJ studies rather than a logically coherent methodology that avoids circularity. I wrote:

    The tools to which you are referring are simple and easy to understand and, like Burridge’s checklist of concrete points of comparison of the Gospels with the external features of ancient biographies, easy. Unfortunately other scholars with a little more cranial matter have demonstrated that the tools are fraught with contradictions and fallacies and do not rescue their users from circularity. They really take their users on rides in spinning wheels within wheels. (And heaven forbid the work of Vines on genre. Reading Bakhtin and genre theory? Oh no, way too hard. At least Burridge’s checklist of externals is easy to understand!)

    Again, a damning commentary on the state of biblical scholarship, at least in some quarters.

    P.S. Yes, I am a little harsh and blunt with this scholar. Had he demonstrated a little more humility when faced with concepts he cannot quite grasp and that are new to him, and had he shown a little more common human respect and civility and dealt with arguments and issues instead of disgraceful personal attacks, and had he the intellectual integrity to treat others’ arguments and words honestly, things could have been a lot more pleasant.

    • 2011-11-27 10:24:14 UTC - 10:24 | Permalink

      Maybe I just missed it, but I can’t recall any historicist directly commenting on Schweitzer’s maxim. Can’t somebody please talk about the elephant in the room?

      I think what upsets them is the maxim’s inherent admission that all the written material of any use for determining historicity comes from a single community — early Christians. There’s a polite fiction in HJ scholarship that the New Testament contains independent sources. Yes, it contains multiple sources, but are they independent? It’s one thing to assert that Mark, John, Q, M and L are independent witnesses (both the adjective and the noun deserve scare quotes), but quite another to prove it. In what way, exactly, are they independent? Why should we not assume that they were all aware of the “rich oral tradition” that was pervasive at the time?

      The other troubling aspect is the admission that an historical event requires external controls to rise above mere plausibility. For many HJ scholars, plausibility itself is a strong criterion, a sure indicator of authenticity. On the other hand, admitting that we have no external controls (which is apparently an open secret that dare not be uttered) is tantamount to a confession of circularity.

      How dare you bring up such painful subjects, Neil?

      • 2011-11-27 11:15:13 UTC - 11:15 | Permalink

        As for plausibility, I was recently reading passages from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History. If you want realistic detail and setting and plausibility just read his richly detailed histories of King Lear and King Arthur. HJ scholarly standards would have them both assigned secure-status equal to Julius Caesar and Queen Elizabeth II.

    • Beachbum
      2011-11-27 11:30:35 UTC - 11:30 | Permalink

      In the comment you refer to, Neil, the one in which the good professor quips that you may be confusing typical biblical historian’s circularity with the mechanics of hermeneutics, he completely misses the fact that he is discussing exegesis, a literary discipline based ultimately on opinion, in a discussion over a historian’s concept of the validity of evidence, value of supporting evidence, and the claims they support. Funny!

      And he claims you may be the one confused — interesting.

      • 2011-11-27 15:00:27 UTC - 15:00 | Permalink

        Unfortunately our friend not only so often demonstrates an inability to follow or construct a simple logical argument but he simply does not bother to read — and hence to make the effort to understand — what he thinks he is attacking. I have learned that his regular refrain “Just because you say you argued or responded to this or that doesn’t mean you actually did” is a projection of his own laziness.

        I fear that to him the word mythicism equates with an idea as bizarre as the earth being carried on the back of a tortoise. His emotive obsession makes it impossible for him to even hear the arguments of those whom he believes entertain such a notion, and he certainly can’t hear them without similtaneously imputing to them sinister character flaws, and his obsession quite often even leads him to think he sees an argument for mythicism where there is none at all.

        One does, unfortunately, tend to think of lightweights seeking compensation. I could be more forgiving if he evidenced a little humility, honesty and common humanity towards those who hold views he does not like.

  • 2011-11-27 12:06:12 UTC - 12:06 | Permalink

    The quest for the historical Jesus is less a search for an historical artifact than a quest for ways to defend his continued relevance against the tides of irrelevance that erode the ancient image. R. Joseph Hoffman

    As far as I can tell from my discussions with Dr. McGrath, it is well within the realm of intellectual respectability to posit that the historical Jesus has been so thoroughly mythologized as to be unrecoverable for all practical purposes. Yet for some reason, it is verboten to suggest that a historical person about whom nothing can be known with any certainty might not be a historical person at all. To quote the King of Siam, “Is a puzzlement.”

    I know that I am repeating myself, but that seems to be a forgivable sin in such discussions.

    • 2011-11-27 14:05:22 UTC - 14:05 | Permalink

      A typo in your last sentence, I think. But yes, I am reminded on the “Fear of Mythicism” thread of my laborious attempts to seek clarification for his statement that “it is not unreasonable to entertain doubts that Jesus existed.” It finally turned out that what he meant was that anyone who asks the question will only prove their reasonableness by quickly assenting to Jesus’ existence as a fact — just as it is theoretically reasonable to ask if the world is really round but one’s reasonableness will only be evident if one almost as quickly admits the question is nonsense in the face of the evidence.

      • 2011-11-27 14:13:05 UTC - 14:13 | Permalink

        I’m not sure where you see the typo. I was referring to the fact that I have made a similar point in your comments before. Unless of course you are referring to my quotation of Yul Brynner in “The King and I.”

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          2011-11-27 15:07:52 UTC - 15:07 | Permalink

          No typo, a quote from the PUZZLEMENT song lyrics, very popular in the States, with the allusion immediately spotted, and often used

          In my head are many facts
          That, as a student, I have studied to procure
          In my head are many facts
          Of which I wish I was more certain, I was sure
          Is a puzzlement

          Repeated in the last line

          But is a puzzlement

        • 2011-11-27 15:12:04 UTC - 15:12 | Permalink

          No, sorry — not important — just wondered if you meant to say “unforgivable sin” rather than forgivable. 🙂

    • GakuseiDon
      2011-11-27 20:48:32 UTC - 20:48 | Permalink

      @Vinny: As far as I can tell from my discussions with Dr. McGrath, it is well within the realm of intellectual respectability to posit that the historical Jesus has been so thoroughly mythologized as to be unrecoverable for all practical purposes. Yet for some reason, it is verboten to suggest that a historical person about whom nothing can be known with any certainty might not be a historical person at all.

      I don’t think that “it is verboten” represents McGrath’s position. In the link that Neil gave above, here are some statements from McGrath:

      “I have said on countless occasions that there will always by definition be uncertainty about whether Jesus existed, because historical study doesn’t provide certainty…”

      “Historical study deals in probabilities…”

      “I have always said, it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed…”

      “… while I consider the evidence to point strongly to there having been a historical Jesus, that doesn’t mean one can be absolutely certain about it in any strict sense. When dealing with piecemeal evidence from antiquity, probability is all we have…”

      “The lesser the extent or clarity of the evidence, the more one has to acknowledge that it is possible that things were not as they appear on the basis of available evidence…”

      As McGrath puts it in the same link:

      “I have always said, it is not unreasonable to entertain doubt that Jesus existed. But I do think it is unreasonable to treat the claims of Earl Doherty, for instance, as more likely to be correct than those of mainstream historical inquiry. The interpretations he offers are at the best of times possible, and often extremely unlikely.”

      • 2011-11-28 03:25:26 UTC - 03:25 | Permalink

        “Historical study deals in probabilities…”

        Yet, historical study doesn’t utilize anything from probability theory. If it did, then the circularity that Neil talks about would be more obvious.

  • Pingback: The Schizophrenia of Jesus Mythicists | Unsettled Christianity

  • Ed Jones
    2012-02-29 02:47:55 UTC - 02:47 | Permalink

    I say again repeat, with no one here seeming to listen: present historical methods and knowledge recognize that the writings of the New Testament are not reliable sources for knowledge of the man Jesus. They are written in the context of a mythical entity which when identified with the Jesus radically distort any real historical identity, even to question if he ever existed. The secular critic uses the very same NT sources equally as dogmatic as the fundamentalist, however different their conclusions derived therefrom.
    The present issue for knowledge of the man Jesus is recognition of the NT source which has our most reasonable claim to apostolic eyewitness. This is not looking behind the narrative tradition, it is the task of identifying a source which is entirely independent of the writings of the NT. “Its recognition is a task to which specialized knowledge in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessarily applies. – – (demanding) of the scholar not as little care, a great deal of time, and a considerable degree of intellectual abstinence.” (Betz). I recognize this understanding in the works of NT scholars Schubert M. Ogden, James M. Robinson, Hans Dieter Betz, Patrick Hartin, to name some. This also requires a reconstruction of origins of the post execution Jesus tradition particularly for the period 30 CE – 65 CE showing that this tradition did not begin with Christianity, thus Christian Origins is a misnoma.

    • 2012-02-29 06:36:57 UTC - 06:36 | Permalink

      Ed, I agree with your initial claim and have always agreed with it — that “present historical methods and knowledge recognize that the writings of the New Testament are not reliable sources for knowledge of the man Jesus”. Most critical scholars agree with this. It is where we are all starting from.

      But in the opening sentence of your second paragraph lies the problem that I am addressing. You write: “The present issue for knowledge of the man Jesus is recognition of the NT source which has our most reasonable claim to apostolic eyewitness.” That sentence is based on the assumption that there was a historical Jesus and on the further assumption that there was an apostolic witness to that man. But what if those assumptions are false? What if the whole story is a fiction?

      What I question is the validity of those two assumptions. Most historical Jesus scholars begin with these assumptions. Historians worth their salt have no need to simiply assume Julius Caesar or Socrates existed. They have a range of independent sources confirming one another, and they reasonable grounds for believing those sources are not tendentiously aiming at making people believe a tale for religious reasons.

      That is where I am coming from and what I see as the problem.

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