“It is absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism”

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues from my previous one . . . .

GoguelMaurice Goguel, 1926

Maurice Goguel prefaced his book against mythicism, Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History?,  with these opening words:

The question of the historical character of Jesus is one of present-day interest. It has once again been ably raised by Monsieur P. L. Couchoud in a small volume of considerable literary value and high spiritual inspiration. (Preface)

I have covered the contributions of Paul-Louis Couchoud to mythicist argument in a series of posts now archived at Couchoud: Creation of Christ. Of all mythicists prior to Earl Doherty Couchoud’s thesis comes very close to that of Doherty’s in many respects. Both argue for Christian origins with a Christ who was evidently a spiritual and heavenly figure at all times in the writings of Paul and the other pre-gospel writings. Doherty had come across Couchoud’s work in his own early explorations but the arguments in The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man nonetheless bear the marks of independently arriving at several of the same conclusions.

Of Couchoud himself Goguel wrote a few lines later:

The intellectual loyalty of M. Couchoud, the sincerity and vigour of his thought, the loyal effort which he has made to penetrate into the spirit of primitive Christianity, are worthy of full respect, but this homage which it is a pleasure to pay him does not prevent our seeing in his book the dream of a poet rather than the work of an historian. (Preface)

Some modern anti-mythicists could learn how to engage in debate with a little civility from Goguel.

So what is Goguel’s purpose in his book? Is it to engage and rebut the arguments of Couchoud and other mythicists? Or is he going to bypass mythicist arguments and argue separately why he believes Jesus was historical?

The problem of the historical character of Jesus is one of fact. It is entirely in the region of fact and by this historical method that we shall attempt its solution to decide whether modern criticism since the eighteenth century has entered a blind alley . . . . (Preface)

That sounds as though Goguel’s primary interest is to show what he believes are the facts supporting the historical existence of Jesus. He gives no hint that he is going to actually address Couchoud’s or others’ arguments.

He makes this intention clearer a little later in his opening chapter.

It is a question of fact which is before us: Are there historical proofs of value for the actual existence of Jesus? We shall therefore leave on one side the discussion of the more or less complicated theories offered to explain (other than by the existence and activity of Jesus) the appearance and development of Christianity. It would be easy to show how much there enters of the conjectural, of superficial resemblances, of debatable interpretation into the systems of the Drews, the Robertsons, the W. B. Smiths, the Couchouds, or the Stahls. We shall not linger on the way to do it. We shall not discuss theories which to a more or less extent are inspired by considerations depending neither on history nor on criticism, but upon religious philosophy. (Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History?, pp. 30-31, my emphasis)

That is, as Earl Doherty himself observed, Goguel says it would be “easy” to show how erroneous mythicist theories but he won’t bother.  Mythicist arguments here are dismissed as not based on “history” or “criticism” but on “religious philosophy”. No argument. No engagement. (“We shall not linger . . . we shall not discuss . . . .) Just a sweeping declaration and dismissal.

I don’t mean that Goguel fails even to mention Couchoud and others again. He certainly does. When he does, however, it is on the whole only to raise the conclusions of a number of their arguments, or to take details that become incidental to their broader explanations, and use those snippets as foils against which he can present his own rationalizations for the historicity of Jesus. (My use of “rationalizations” is deliberate and, as will be seen in the following example, justified.)

Here’s an example. It is from Goguel’s fifth chapter.

Two facts which prove Paul’s Christ is a real human personality?

Goguel begins by declaring that there are “two facts which prove that the Pauline Christ is indeed a real human personality.”

Keep in mind that no mythicist, Couchoud or any other, uses their interpretation of this verse to “prove” Jesus was a mythical figure. It is only the historicists who use this verse as a proof-text. The mythicist arguments as a rule address what they see as core messages in Paul’s and other writings and are then left to account for a passage such as Galatians 1:19 where Paul speaks of James being a “brother of the Lord”. Since the primary mythicist argument has been established elsewhere, this passage requires explanation. It is not difficult for various plausible explanations to present themselves once one begins with a mythicist assumption. Historicists, on the other hand, begin with the assumption that Jesus was historical and did have brothers, so they cannot really conceive of this passage meaning anything else. And since they have bypassed the mythicist possibility they proceed to make this verse a proof-text to “prove” the historicity of Jesus.

Goguel is no different. He does not address the arguments or explanation of any mythicist in relation to this verse. He simply points out their conclusion. He then writes:

In neither of these two passages [Gal. 1:19 and 1 Cor. 9:5] is it possible unless the text be distorted in an inadmissible manner, to give the word “brothers” any other interpretation than that which belongs to it in its natural sense.

Goguel thus does not address the argument that led Couchoud to his own explanation of Gal. 1:19 (he does not even mention Couchoud’s explanation of the verse) but he does explain to readers how they “should” understand that passage as a “fact” that “proves” the historicity of Jesus.

He does not even address what most bible scholars and students well know and that is that the “natural” sense in which Paul in every other instance of his use of the word is something other than a physical sibling, nor the little detail (so often overlooked by historicists) that the phrase makes no mention of the name “Jesus”.

We come now to the second of the “two facts which prove” Jesus was a historical person: Paul’s struggle with the Jerusalem apostles.

The Twelve could boast of having been Christians and apostles before Paul. . . .

What could this former qualification of which the Jerusalem apostles boasted be, other than that they had been witnesses and associates of the historical ministry of Jesus? The controversies between Paul and Jerusalem apostles thus establish that the latter boasted of having been witnesses of the life of Jesus — a fact which Paul did not contest.

That’s it. No evidence. Nothing more than a rhetorical question. (“Beware rhetorical questions: they paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments” – Daniel Dennett.) The answer is presumed since Goguel cannot escape his a priori assumption that Jesus was historical and that he had twelve apostles who followed him daily just as the Gospels said. It’s called begging the question.

I hope to use either or both or these particular points of argument as an illustration of the other anti-mythicists, too. It will be interesting to see what we can learn about their common failure to address mythicist argument.

Beware rhetorical questions: they paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. – Daniel Dennett.

I had expected to cite similar excerpts from Case, Wood, Howell Smith, Schweitzer, Ehrman, Casey, McGrath and maybe some others but had not expected this one illustration to exceed a thousand words. So more to come in a future post.

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  • Wentham
    2014-05-19 12:37:36 UTC - 12:37 | Permalink

    So Goguel is a typical, circular historicist: he uses information from the Bible, to “prove” that the Bible was historical.

    Next he specifically references to the “brother of Jesus” are alleged to prove that there was such a person, a real biological brother.

    I’ll have to ask a few monks – the “brothers” they call themselves – how they feel about that.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-05-19 14:08:16 UTC - 14:08 | Permalink

      There was a certain Hung Xiuquan in nineteenth century China who became a great leader of a certain Christian community that ruled a literal kingdom on earth in a large area of China. He was known as the Brother of Jesus Christ. I doubt too many of his followers were confused by that when they no doubt also called one another brothers and sisters.

      It would be completely foolish, of course, to even begin to contemplate that this little episode (it led to millions suffering bloody deaths) might have any conceptual relevance to the argument.

      • Tim Widowfield
        2014-05-19 15:42:00 UTC - 15:42 | Permalink

        Peter had a sister-wife (sister as wife), which “everybody knows” must not be taken literally or as referring to a celibate marriage. No, it has to mean “believing wife.” Any fool can see that.

        James was the brother of the Lord, which “everybody knows” cannot be taken metaphorically or in a theological sense. No, it has to mean “the brother of Jesus.” Any fool can see that.

        The fact that both interpretations agree with Protestant Christian dogma is purely coincidental.

      • Wentham
        2014-05-19 17:18:56 UTC - 17:18 | Permalink

        Probably we need not address the “brother of Jesus” controversy at all. Since if the Bible itself is in question, then a term from the Bible has no relevance.

        But if we must? Then strictly speaking, if modern 19th century monks call each other “brothers,” that would at first also seem irrelevant. Unless it turns out to be a tradition that goes back to before Jesus. As this one does. Ancient monks and fellow warriors called each other “brothers” it seems, centuries before Jesus.

        For that matter, even if the term “brothers” was largely biological, then we need to note that biological and marriage “kinship systems” were extremely complex and varied in ancient times. As Anthropology and History suggest. Therefore a term like “brother” could be confused, even when dealing with what would appear to be a biological reference. Specially when there were multiple wives. And Egyptian pharaohs and princes often married their actual half-sisters. Or when Roman emperors often adopted non-related younger men as their “sons.” At some point the term clearly became metaphorical or spiritual or conventional. Particularly in the Roman Empire that surrounded and occupied Judah in 30 AD.

        Incidentally, it is interesting that Vridar notes the use of the term “brothers” especially in militaristic religious cults. Men banded together in cults and in armies, have certain similarities: uniformity, conformity, a life of strict regimentation and rules, like-mindedness, and a murderous attitude toward non-conformists, being among them.

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