Ongoing Disregard for Facts and Denials of Old Criticisms (yes, McGrath again, sorry)

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr McGrath, after I demonstrated that he once again claimed a mythicist wrote the opposite of what he really did write, has quaintly responded with a post titled Why Do Mythicists Care So Little About Facts and Details? in which he writes a revisionist account of his original post.

With a beautiful irony McGrath opens with an astonishingly cavalier disregard for the facts and details that both Richard Carrier and I have ever written about scholars such as Thompson and Noll with respect to mythicism:

[Neil Godfrey] repeats Richard Carrier’s claim that mythicism is embraced by individuals like Thomas Thompson (who has distanced himself from mythicism) and Kurt Noll (whose contribution to Is This Not the Carpenter? is rather wonderful and does much to undermine mythicism).

Here was my quote from Richard Carrier:

Combine this with Brodie’s defection to mythicism, alongside Thompson’s, and (like Thompson’s) the publicly professed “historicity agnosticism” of Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD, and Kurt Noll, associate professor of religion at Brandon University, and Ehrman’s argument that only amateurs and outsiders take the Jesus Myth theory seriously is now in the dust. There is still, certainly, a litany of crank and amateur mythicist nonsense. But there is also a serious case to be made, by serious and well-qualified scholars. And they need to be paid attention to, not dismissed and mistreated, their arguments straw manned or ignored.

So McGrath is once again careless with the facts and details. That is not a claim that Thompson and Noll “embrace mythicism”. They do not. Carrier clearly states Droge and Noll are “historicity agnostics”! The point is just as damaging to McGrath’s case, however. They are not viscerally hostile towards the Christ Myth possibility as is McGrath. They acknowledge its plausibility. McGrath can never accept even that much. Never.

I don’t know if Carrier has ever said Thompson “embraces” mythicism. I certainly have never said any such thing. I have always been quite clear about Thompson’s own case. Thompson addresses the nature of the evidence that we rely upon for Jesus and argues for its stereotypical nature. The same type of literature is found elsewhere applied to both historical and mythical figures. Thompson is, as he writes in the very article McGrath hand-waves readers to study (does McGrath ever stop to take note of the detailed contents in any of the citations he hand-waves people to look at?), pointing out that the prevailing assumption of the historicity of Jesus is problematic given the nature of the evidence we have:

I wrote my monograph of 2005 in an effort to explore the continuity of a limited number of themes which were rooted in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology—an issue which is not only marginally related to questions of historicity, but one which also has much to say about the perception of history and historical method among modern scholars. . . . It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits.

Yes, his argument has the potential to open up the question of mythicism. But Thompson himself is not addressing mythicism per se. I know his argument reasonably well, I hope, because I believe my own arguments are very strongly influenced by Thompson’s. That’s why I have generally avoided the label “mythicist” for myself.

McGrath’s hyper-sensitivity in this area does not seem to benefit him with any capability of understanding such subtleties.

Er, no, I meant he tried to publish with the wrong companies

In my initial response to James McGrath’s review of Thomas L. Brodie’s Memoir, I zeroed in on a single remark by McGrath that grotesquely misrepresented what Brodie himself explicitly wrote. I explained why I was not writing a comprehensive response at that time and why I chose to single out that one point for attention.


Never learned how to do scholarship

McGrath was trying to establish a point that the reason Brodie’s thesis was not published had to do with unscholarly methods and not its conclusion that Jesus was not an historical person. He needs this to be true to argue a case that the only reason mythicism is rejected is because it is not based on sound scholarship. Hence he stressed:

Brodie indicates that he had this conviction even before he had learned to do scholarship, and that his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes . . . (see the complete sentence below)

But although his idea was concocted prior to his learning how to do scholarship . . .

I recommend that this book be widely read. It illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers, not because there is ingrained antipathy to it in the academy, but because the case for it is based on thoroughly unpersuasive arguments, and the complete disregard for other possibilities, . . .

The book can serve as a warning to young scholars to be open to criticism and feedback (and to more established scholars to provide honest and clear feedback, since I found myself wondering whether anyone actually told Brodie that he was using dubious methods and criteria to produce dubious results).

Specifically, the words of McGrath I was exposing as a blatantly false portrayal of what Brodie himself explained about the reason his manuscript was not published were these:

Brodie indicates that . . . his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes, refusal to accept criticisms of and feedback on his claims and interpretations, and attempting to find a Christian publisher for what he wrote on the subject (pp.32,35,40,42).

All of a sudden, in his second defence of his initial review, McGrath is now telling us that the last line of the above was his main point! Brodie’s real problem was that he was going to the wrong sort of publisher! We will soon see how questionable this take is.

In the remainder of my original criticism I pointed out what Brodie specifically wrote on those four pages McGrath cited. I showed that Brodie’s point about lack of footnotes etc did not come as publisher feedback but as feedback from a teacher-examiner! I then quoted Brodie’s words that flatly contradicted McGrath’s assertion that Brodie indicates the reason publishers rejected his work was because of lack of footnotes etc:

In Spring of 1975 I produced a manuscript and immediately showed it to a British publisher, and then to a second, but their responses indicated that it was not at all what publishers wanted. What ruled it out above all else was its conclusion that Jesus had not existed. As the first publisher said, ‘It’s not just that we won’t take it. Nobody will take it.’ The second publisher said no Christian publishing house would take it.

Look at that last sentence. That is the first reference to a “Christian publisher”. There is no indication that Brodie was confining himself to “Christian” publishers here — as McGrath seems now to be claiming. I don’t know what publishers were first approached, but Brodie gives us reasons to think he was looking among publishers who would normally be interested in taking scholarly work of a Christian interest. And Brodie himself points out that mythicism does not necessarily require the end of Christianity.

In the next section of this post I quote what Brodie says about the type of publisher he was looking for to accept his journal articles. (Another detail that completely escaped McGrath.)

Now McGrath is downplaying the main thrust of what he wrote and to hide the fact that he wrote:

Brodie indicates that . . . his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes, refusal to accept criticisms of and feedback on his claims and interpretations

As I pointed out with several quotations above, that was McGrath’s main message. “Brodie is not a competent scholar. That’s why his views were not published!” That’s McG’s message.

Any two facts in the same part of a book, divided by π, are in a causal relationship

So desperate is McGrath to back up that message that he even argued it was valid on the basis of two quite distinct episodes that he argued should be read in a “cause-effect” relationship because they are in “the same part of the book”!!! and because his own experience can be used as a guide and an excuse to ignore Brodie’s own clear explanations.

Look at how, despite my acknowledgment that I may have run characteristics of Brodie’s student work and his attempts at publication together (since they were mentioned in the same part of the book, and if such students publish anything, it tends to be work produced in the course of their studies),. . .

Two different details were mentioned in “the same part of the book” and since McG can imagine a cause-effect link between the two then that link must supersede Brodie’s own evidence about the publisher feedback!

McGrath also overlooked that Brodie writes that none other than Raymond Brown told Brodie that one of his articles “had a chance” for publication in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

I was particularly keen to publish an article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (CBQ), a journal widely esteemed among scholars of all denominations. (p. 40)

That tells us something about the sorts of publishers Brodie was seeking. Does McGrath think Brodie was trying to find a niche with a Christian devotional publisher rather than a scholarly one? Or does McGrath admit that no publishers who normally take scholarly books from theologians would touch anything that came to the “wrong conclusion”?

Let’s talk about some other things found in other books

But it gets worse. McGrath then attempts to sidestep the criticism completely by introducing an argument that Brodie does not make in the book:

. . . Godfrey continues to focus on such minor details in order to distract from the main point, which is that Brodie’s methods are problematic.

Sorry, McGrath, but Brodie’s book is not an explanation of the methods or Brodie’s arguments for mythicism. If they are at all, they are so only to the extent that they are presented in the must summary forms. The arguments are found in the details of his earlier work, in particular the 650 off pages of The Birthing of the New Testament. Brodie explained the reason for his Memoir was to make the implications (not the methods) of his earlier arguments plain!

McGrath is attempting to argue on the basis of Brodie’s Memoir that Brodie’s methods are flawed — yet Brodie at no point in those pages cited or addressed by me demonstrates his method in anything but the barest outline. This book is, as Carrier himself said, not a book to argue the case for mythicism. It is a memoir of Brodie’s own intellectual journey and, most of all, an attempt to make plain the [mythicist] implications of his earlier detailed studies that too few readers recognized.

Yet, as promised, I still intend to address the remainder of McGrath’s original review in which he even misrepresents Brodie’s bare outline of the description of his method. I had hoped to do that well before now but another anti-mythicist decided to issue a perjured complaint that set in a train of events that got me sidetracked for a bit.

The irony is that McG accuses Brodie and “mythicists” of not being able to imagine any other explanation for the evidence.

An Old Earth Creationist Pulls the Young Earth Creationist Card

McGrath finally begins to appear to concede that his review was marred by factual errors. But that doesn’t matter. If a mythicist sympathizer points out his errors of fact then he is being just like a young earth creationist!

Good lordy lord! And if I swallowed or ignored the errors of fact I guess I would have been in that very strange camp that tries to unify evolution and faith in God as creator, thus denying the very essence of evolutionary theory.

And so even if my book review had in fact been full of errors, it would not make mythicism plausible, any more than when a young-earth creationist finds that this or that book or book review contained an error, it changes the overall state of our scientific knowledge.

Sorry, McG, but you’ve missed the point. Brodie’s book is not “an argument for mythicism” but a memoir and an unambiguous declaration of where the arguments in his earlier books lead. It’s in the title. Your errors of fact did nothing except show your own hostility to the mythicist viewpoint. They were not errors of fact in arguing for an historical Jesus — which would be the analogy you need to make your point.

By pointing out your errors of fact and your subsequent attempts to excuse them or deny them, I am attempting to demonstrate the real problem facing mythicism in the academy. It really is ideological hostility. It has nothing to do unsound “methods” as you want us to believe.

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  • 2013-07-07 23:32:39 UTC - 23:32 | Permalink

    I actually think that Carrier’s sentence is rather awkwardly constructed and unclear as to whether Thompson is being identified with the agnostics Noll and Droge rather than with the mythicist Brodie.

    • 2013-07-08 05:15:28 UTC - 05:15 | Permalink

      Agreed. But McGraths statement that Thompson has distanced himself from mythicism is so problematic (he has equally distanced himself from historicism) as to make the point a small one.

      I’ve got some comments on McGraths post, including the fact that McG went back and forth with Thompson in the comments to Thompson’s B&I post responding to Erhman.

      • vinnyjh57
        2013-07-08 16:33:06 UTC - 16:33 | Permalink

        I’ve always wondered what ruler McGrath uses to measure the distance between various positions.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-07-08 05:28:23 UTC - 05:28 | Permalink

      All right, I’ve read better sentences, but I think it’s at least clear that Carrier is placing Noll in the Jesus-agnostic group (along with you, Avalos, and me). But Blind-Spot-Jimmy can’t stand it and claims that “mythicism is embraced by individuals like Thomas Thompson . . . and Kurt Noll.”

      Even a grinning troll with a sixth-grade reading level should be able to see the difference.

      • 2013-07-08 17:35:09 UTC - 17:35 | Permalink

        Agreed. But McGrath is specifically calling out that Thompson is not a mythicist like Brodie, which one reading of the sentence states. So he’s right on the detail, but as I said above, wrong on big picture.

  • 2013-07-08 02:17:44 UTC - 02:17 | Permalink

    That anti-mythicists seem to feel they have to misrepresent the arguments and distort recent history to make their ‘points’ doesn’t bode well for their ability to reliably report on ancient history or arguments made in ancient times.

    It’s often said the cover-up is ‘worse than the crime’ – while I don’t agree it’s worse it at least verifies that those who indulge in such cover-ups are aware that what they did in the first place *is* a crime.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2013-07-08 08:14:50 UTC - 08:14 | Permalink

    My mention of McG’s treatment of the Carrier quote was a last-minute afterthought. There’s scarcely a line in McG’s “review” that gets anything right. I still haven’t got to his utterly false depictions of Brodie’s method as a form of parallelomania, and of his supposed unwillingness to listen to feedback from wiser heads. McG’s treatment is as false as was his treatment of Doherty’s chapters. Not surprising. We surely know by now that McG knows exactly what he’s going to find in any mythicist-leaning work, and that he scarcely has to read any of them to enable him to “review” them.

    Brodie actually has a lot of good advice for the likes of McGrath, if he would only read and register it.

  • cornbread_r2
    2013-07-08 16:21:08 UTC - 16:21 | Permalink

    If it’s true that Brodie’s been making his case for mythicism incrementally through the years in his previous work and his latest, in regards to his argument, is just the unambiguous summation, then why weren’t McGrath, his church and others criticizing Brodie all along the way? Indeed, how was Brodie even able to find someone to publish all of the rest of the argument if it was so godawful? (Perhaps Brodie was being criticized all along the way, but I’d never heard of him, or reference to his dangerous, radial ideas, until his last book was published.) It would seem that as long as Brodie refrained from writing that one, conclusive sentence — that Jesus never existed — then everything would be honkydory in the guild.

    • 2013-07-09 01:16:16 UTC - 01:16 | Permalink

      It only became clear with Brodie’s “coming out” that he was No True Serious Scholar. Now that that’s cleared up, it’s open season.

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