Jonathan Bernier noted in a recent post “the special pleading involved in rejecting a consensus position adopted by virtually every New Testament scholar (that Jesus existed) while accepting without reflection a consensus position [on the dates of the gospels] adopted by most but hardly all such scholars. If we are all mistaken on something so fundamental to the discipline, then how can it be assumed without investigation that the majority of us are correct on anything else?” — James McGrath, The Myth of Mythicism and Undebunkable Skepticism (Sept 30 2016) — James McGrath’s title for his post seems to indicate that he thinks all the fuss about the arguments for the Christ Myth theory today are a hoax and there is no such phenomenon on the web or anywhere, but I don’t think that’s what he meant to convey.
My head is spinning. Didn’t Maurice Casey in his polemic accuse mythicists of rejecting the consensus position of scholars on the dates of the gospels?
ludicrously late dates for the Gospels are central to the assumptions of mythicists . . . (p. 45)
mythicists try to date the Gospels as late as possible, one of the reasons they use is the date of surviving manuscripts. (p. 49)
mythicists try to date the Gospels as late as possible, and one of the reasons they use is the date of surviving manuscripts. (p. 66)
I have already pointed out that the dates proposed for the Gospels by mythicists are seriously awry. (p. 80)
the hopelessly late dates proposed by mythicists. (p. 81)
Apart from the extraordinarily late dates proposed by mythicists . . . (p. 93)
The very late dates for the canonical Gospels proposed by mythicists should be uniformly rejected. (p. 107)
Two major mistakes underlie all the mythicists’ arguments. One is the date of the synoptic Gospels, which they all date much too late, as we saw . . . (p. 133)
Building on their ludicrously late date of the synoptic Gospels . . . (p. 134)
So how can Jonathan Bernier accuse them of mindlessly accepting the consensus position on gospel dates?
There is a very deliberate reason that Bernier does not familiarize himself with the arguments and why McGrath likewise side-steps them. It is not a simple misunderstanding. Nor is it a question of partial information that can be rectified. But first let’s be clear about the gulf between Bernier’s cum McGrath’s attacks on mythicism and reality.
Earl Doherty may be considered responsible for the revival of public interest in the Christ Myth theory. In his major work, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, he argues the pros and cons of the various dates proposed by scholars for the dating of the Gospel of Mark. He addresses the pros and cons of those who date the gospel much earlier than 70 CE as well as those few who date it considerably later than 70 CE. The total length of his discussion and engagement with the evidence advanced by scholars for their mainstream consensus date as well as the extremes is about 3,640 words, including end notes (about 2570 words without the end notes). Word count alone of course is not a measure of quality of argument but I use it here in conjunction with the main point that Doherty has addressed the range of scholarly arguments in some depth.
My own experiences in engaging with mythicists on discussion forums is that they are very well aware of the rationales behind the various dates assigned to the gospels, and many are also aware of the reasons some date the Gospel of Mark prior to or around the same time as Paul’s mission and why fewer have even dated the gospels to the second century.
Neither Jonathan Bernier nor James McGrath indicate the identities of the mythicists they have in mind when they say they “accept without reflection” the consensus for the dates of the gospels.
He also writes, “There are matters upon which informed persons can disagree. Then there are matters upon which disagreement indicates that at least one interlocutor is not qualified to be part of the discussion.” — James McGrath, The Myth of Mythicism and Undebunkable Skepticism (Sept 30 2016)
These days there is a peculiar myth circulating the internet, namely that Jesus never existed. It is peculiar, because it is evidently false to anyone actually competent to speak to the matter, and thus it is really quite baffling that anyone would actually hold it to be true. It is a myth because it stands as a fantastic and incredible (literally, in-credible) tale that is propagated in order to give warrant to a certain ideology, namely a remarkably unsophisticated new atheism (I mean, really, one hardly needs to demonstrate that Jesus did not exist in order to reject belief in God, nor would Jesus’ non-existence demonstrate that God never existed). (Why Chronology Matters, 10 Sept 2016)
Bernier indicates that he has no knowledge of the published books (hard copies) that have been published (off-line) by Christ Myth exponents and that various people discuss on the internet. Earl Doherty’s first book and the one that might be said to have started the whole kerfuffle, The Jesus Puzzle, is only available in hard copy. (There is a bogus copy of the book with a misleading cover that can be found for free on the internet but that file is actually a novel with a similar title and not Doherty’s formal argument.)
Again Bernier does not name the mythicists he has in mind when he says that their agenda is to advance a New Atheist “ideology” or which mythicist publications contain accompanying calls to atheism. Thomas Brodie and Tom Harpur, both prominent writers questioning the existence of Jesus, are certainly not atheists: they are very religious and have presented arguments that enable them to reconcile their Christian faith with a figurative (parabolic) Jesus. In their publications they directly appeal to believer readers to do the same. Thomas Brodie begins the third last chapter of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus with this:
Is it possible for a believing Christian to accept that Jesus Christ never existed as a specified historical individual? At first sight it may seem not . . . .
But perhaps the Christianity to which we are accustomed is not the last word. . . . (p .197)
His conclusion that same chapter begins:
No question, then — our understanding of Christ can indeed change. The only issue is how far? Far enough to see Christ not as an individual human, but as a symbol of God among us, God within us? It is a challenging change. . . .
It is time that Jesus Christ emerged from our tiny boxes. (p. 201)
Brodie follows with two more chapters discussing the implication for believing Christians.
Tom Harpur writes in The Pagan Christ of
an exhilarating new approach to faith and to a sorely needed, truly spiritual Christianity . . . . My goal throughout is not to summarily dismiss the deep beliefs held by many millions . . . But I do what these people to think deeply about their faith anew. . . . The Jesus story will come alive and strike your heart and intellect as never before. Traditional rituals such as Holy Communion, baptism, and the Church’s key festivals of Christmas and Easter will have new power once we understand their true meaning in the light of ancient wisdom. . . Belief in the Christ within will be established as a key to personal and communal transformation. (p. 13)
That sounds very similar to what I recall reading in Freke and Gandy’s mythicist publications.
I am not denying that Doherty and Carrier are atheists. Rene Salm, if I recall, is a Buddhist. Robert M. Price has also expressed a love of Christianity and church involvement, if I have understood reports correctly. I have discussed a number of prominent mythicists of a previous generation who similarly expressed strong respect and even in one case (Couchoud) admiration for Christianity. And probably internet’s most vocal, published and best known nemesis of Christianity, John Loftus of Debunking Christianity, has made it very clear that probably the worst (least effective!) way to turn people against Christianity and convert them into atheists is to hit them with the Christ Myth hypothesis.
Since Bernier does not tell readers which mythicists he has in mind one is left with the impression that he knows very little about this “peculiar myth circulating the internet” and is reacting emotionally to vague hearsay rather than speaking with any informed awareness.
And if he is relying on hearsay and has no first hand knowledge of any of the arguments from any of the likes of Doherty or Price or Carrier or Wells or Brodie then one can only conclude his bafflement over how anyone, certainly no informed person, could possibly entertain the view arises because he simply cannot imagine what their arguments could possibly be. That he believes mythicists accept conventional dates for the gospels “without reflection” further supports this conclusion.
On the contrary there are indeed biblical scholars who have openly said that the mythicist arguments are not at all without merit and are worth serious consideration: Hector Avalos, Thomas L. Thompson, Arthur Droge, Kurt Knoll, Philip R. Davies, Burton Mack, Gerd Lüdemann to name the more well known ones. Other intellectuals one is not likely to associate with “the fantastic” or “the incredible” who have spoken positively of the Christ Myth arguments include Michel Onfray, Paul Hopper, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Michael Martin . . . (See Who’s Who for details and others)
Bernier’s unfamiliarity with the arguments is underscored with his final barb:
One aspect of the standard mythicist myth is that since one can read Paul such that he is not referring to Jesus as an actual flesh-and-blood person, it must follow that originally Jesus began as a purely cosmic and mythological figure who was historicized in the gospels. Let us leave aside the fact that is predicated upon a purely tendentious and demonstrably false reading of Paul. (Honestly, if one cannot see that this is purely tendentious and demonstrably false then one merely reveals that one is lacking in competence to speak to the matter. There are matters upon which informed persons can disagree. Then there are matters upon which disagreement indicates that at least one interlocutor is not qualified to be part of the discussion).
My what foolish silly nincompoops are such incompetent and utterly unqualified persons like Avalos, Thompson, Droge, Knoll, Davies, Onfray . . . .
I said none of this is accidental. There is a rhyme and reason for these tactics.
Name-calling and image-management
Neils Peter Lemche has explained the very same tactics as they have been used in another context, the questioning of the historicity at first of the patriarchs and more recently of David and the united biblical kingdom of Solomon.
Conservative scholarship is on the move, often disguising itself as mainstream scholarship. Part of being mainstream has to do with being reconciliatory – maybe with a touch of condescendence – asking people in the frontline to behave, abstain from labelling and name-calling. Professor Provan’s contribution to this discussion is a perfect example of this new attitude, claiming the highest level of scholarship even though other interests may be at hand at the same side. . . .
. . . . in creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way . . . . or it can be rude as found in several publications by W.G. Dever and other scholars on the same line like G. Rendsburg. The meaning is the same: do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent.
There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . .
What is the aim of this labeling? Here it is interesting to compare with the characterization of conservative scholarship in James Barr‘s book on fundamentalism . . . . The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you. Barr, himself born into an evangelical environment, has no doubts about the background and motivation of the conservative standpoint. . . . . there is no need to quote dogma, no need to indulge in heated religious controversy. One simply and calmly states the evidence from outside the Bible that shows how unnecessary and how completely wrong the entire series of critical questionings has been. … Indeed, it is a necessity of the conservative argument . . . that it makes at least a pretence of impartiality. . . .
It is a war cry, intending at burying his hated opponents . . . . He is aiming at destroying the minimalists without ever engaging in a serious debate with them.
That’s exactly what McGrath, Bernier and their companions are doing in relation to mythicism. The name-calling, the mud-stirring analogies, the disinformation . . . it is all aimed at destroying mythicists without ever engaging in serious debate with them. Confirmation of this appears to come with Bart Ehrman’s approach to his coming debate with Robert M. Price.
James McGrath takes the opportunity to point to other recent take-downs of mythicism but (presumably accidentally) begins by linking to a site in which the author eventually reveals he has been persuaded by Doherty and Price and others. This is not the first time that McGrath links to sites in support of his point of view even though it appears on inspection that he has not actually read them with much care. Nor is it the first time he has turned to Tim O’Neill to join his cheer squad. Tim has declined at every opportunity I have presented to him (at any venue, forum, blog) to seriously engage in a defence of his arguments in open discussion. His response each time has been to insult, bully and walk away. McGrath’s next piece of weaponry is a page by Randal Rauser, and a glance at the imputation of motives and muddying the waters by means of specious analogies and complete absence of engagement with specific arguments in Randal’s article alerts us to why it should be held so dear by the Religion Prof. Another page by Randal Rauser commended by McGrath virtually defends such extreme apologist arguments that the gospels were sourced from eyewitnesses and Paul “demonstrates a wide knowledge of Jesus and his teachings”.
With a twist of irony McGrath adds points to a post by Hemant Mehta. The post reads:
Don’t Let Your Skepticism Get Carried Away
Captain Disillusion, the most talented skeptic you’ll find on YouTube, reminds us of the importance of being willing to change your mind when confronted with new facts.