2016-11-02

Just How Dangerous Is Mythicism?

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by Tim Widowfield

Demon

Demon

In hindsight, I think we were unnecessarily cruel to Mr. Griffin, our misfit freshman science teacher. Behind his back, we referred to him by his initials, R.A.G., and sang that old “Rag Mop” song. He was a bit of a goof, but to RAG’s credit, he chose an innovative science text intended to take the student on an “odyssey of discovery.”

That high school textbook focused on a mysterious crystalline substance called bluestone. Over the course of the semester, we would test hypotheses and run several experiments trying to identify this stuff. I think it was my friend, Doug Simpson, who very early on sneaked a peak at the instructor’s edition lying on RAG’s desk and who shouted out, “It’s copper sulfate!

RAG was furious.

MacGuffins

You could, of course, consider bluestone as a sort of MacGuffin. To be sure, we were learning basic chemistry; however, the main purpose of the text was to teach us the scientific method. At the beginning the book invited the student to consider the demon hypothesis, the notion that tiny invisible beings were causing our bluestone to react to exposure to heat, dilution in water, combination with other chemicals, etc. After each experiment we’d evaluate the results and alter our hypothesis. Eventually, we would develop a new, more scientific hypothesis — one that better predicted future experiments and more rationally explained our observations.

Our so-called demon hypothesis had some features in common with other early natural theories such as the chemical theory of phlogiston, which postulated an imaginary, immaterial substance released during combustion. But it had even more in common with prescientific theories that required supernatural intervention in the natural world to explain mundane phenomena. We could also draw similarities with the concept of the devil’s advocate, inasmuch as our placeholder hypothesis was obviously wrong and decidedly nonscientific (or even antiscientific).

Pigeons

To hear Dr. James McGrath tell it, no variation of the Jesus Myth hypothesis has merit. In fact, he consistently compares it to creationism. Actually, he always takes care to call it Young Earth Creationism, in deference to Old Earth Creationism and Guided Evolution, pseudo-scientific theories he finds perfectly acceptable.

Incidentally, here on Vridar we did not adequately mark the passage of The Exploding Cakemix, which McGrath has renamed “Religion Prof.” Of course, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Hereinafter, I shall refer to his blog by a moniker that will “retain that dear perfection,” namely The Pigeon Trough.

McGrath has consistently maintained that even merely arguing against mythicism of any sort is distasteful, since it lends an air of respectability to a foul thing that deserves nothing but ridicule. That’s par for the course. After the recent debate with Bob Price, McGrath’s idol, Bart Ehrman, remarked with amazement at the “ignorance” of the questioners. Similarly, James thinks nothing of branding them as denialists. Pecking in the Trough, McGrath writes:

Many of the questioners at the end asked “how do we know?” and seemed to think that a lack of absolute certainty is a reason for simply believing nothing, or anything. But that is a standard denialist tactic, one that attracts only lazy thinkers. For everyone else, the hard work of analysis of evidence, and the probabilistic conclusions that result, are or should be the basis for our views of the past.

When somebody asks a scientist “How do we know?” he or she will respond by pointing to experimental evidence, the fossil record, theoretical predictions we can validate, and so on. When somebody asks a real historian “How do we know?’ he or she will answer by citing external, corroborating written or archaeological evidence.

How do we know?

But when you ask a New Testament scholar the same thing, you get a lot of hand-waving, appeals to probability, and insults. And as far as lazy thinking goes, which mythicist has ever asked for “absolute certainty”? None, of course, which is why the good doctor writes “seems to.” He seems to have trouble characterizing others honestly.

Our prickly pigeon, homing in on projected motivations, muses that some kind of character flaw must drive those who buck the consensus. When you disagree with him, you’re an ignorant denialist. On the other hand, when he disagrees with you, it’s because you’ve “failed to convince” him.

I mentioned above that McGrath would prefer not giving mythicism any oxygen, but if we must discuss it at all, his job is to mock it and its adherents. As David Fitzgerald can attest, he’ll interrupt you, jeer you, and pepper you with dozens of non-sequitur questions before you can utter a paragraph. He’ll dress you down for not knowing anything, while you’re still talking.

I find this hostility strange for two reasons. First, in any other field of study, an easily debunked theory becomes a useful object lesson. The demon hypothesis fails because science provides better answers. Aliens didn’t build the pyramids because archaeology proves otherwise. And in the course of explaining the actual evidence, scholars displace ignorance with real evidence.

But NT scholars cannot abide mythicism. Ehrman explains that it just isn’t something the good folk in the ivory towers talk about or take seriously. Indeed, he takes it so unseriously that he can’t be bothered to learn exactly what Price, Carrier, Salm, or anyone else is actually arguing. He could barely summon the effort to recapitulate the arguments from his book, as if we hadn’t already read it, discussed it ad nauseam, and offered refutations — a tacit admission that he had no intention of engaging any sort of real discourse.

The second reason I find it strange is that, unlike creationism or the demon theory of chemistry, mythicism requires no supernatural interference to explain events. As Fitzgerald tried to explain in the discussion following the Ehrman-Price Debate, mythicists in general accept most of the current consensus positions in NT Studies. They just posit a different explanation for the ultimate origin of Christian belief.

A radical hypothesis that’s taken seriously

Oddly enough, we do have another radical, competing hypothesis for the origin of Christianity. Some people out there believe the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same. They hold that all the miracles and healings in the New Testament are not only plausible, but probable — because, “Well, why not?”

In any other field of study, a theory that relies on supernatural explanations would be an easy hit, a fine object lesson in how not to think critically or scientifically. But those rules don’t apply here. The people I’m talking about who take miracles seriously and believe that Jesus was a God-man who really did rise from the dead aren’t misguided schlubs whom Ehrman and McGrath would call ignorant. No, not at all. They are, after all, their fellow scholars — tenured professors at universities who do things like join in prayer before starting a symposium on the historical Jesus.

NT Studies protects magical thinking and respects people who propose unscientific, supernatural answers to explain natural phenomena. They can publish in respected journals. Mainstream, respectable publishers will print and distribute their books. Universities will hire them and offer them tenure.

But try floating the concept that, after you peel away every layer of the legendary onion, the itinerant preacher at the heart of the tradition did not exist in history, and you’re instantly radioactive. You aren’t just a lovable crank who has some outdated, quaint notions; you’re untouchable. They insist the idea is laughable, but it’s a nervous laughter provoked by a dangerous idea.

Conclusion

The NT Studies guild has erected a guardrail around the consensus, but it protects only one side of the road. On the one hand, scholars in good standing can and do, for example, write books arguing that the entirety of John’s Gospel goes back to eyewitness testimony that reflects true, historical events. On the other hand, scholars in the mainstream center will argue that the Fourth Gospel contains some historical truths along with some embellishments. And, as Tevye exclaimed, “There is no other hand!”

I called it a guardrail, but no physical barrier actually exists. In fact, in the post-debate discussion McGrath took great pains to tell us how the guild welcomes all sorts of scholars from diverse backgrounds — Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, liberals, conservatives, you name it — and they all believe that Jesus exists. He does not know, we must conclude, how societies protect themselves through a process of filtering and self-selection.

Perhaps a brief primer will help.

24 Comments

  • Bob Jase
    2016-11-02 17:50:05 UTC - 17:50 | Permalink

    Can I take it that McGrath believes in all gods from all religions? Most have written stories about them that are set in identifiable geographic areas and eras. The physical evidence is pretty much the same for all of them.

    McGrath can’t be mythicist about all those can he?

    • R Pence
      2016-11-02 19:41:31 UTC - 19:41 | Permalink

      You clearly don’t understand that Jesus is the best-attested Palestinian Jewish demigod also known as ‘the Christ’ in the 1st century.

      Moreover, the New Testament is rife with descriptions of him. And even more than that, we have Q and the oral tradition devoted to him in Aramaic.

      • Tim Widowfield
        2016-11-02 22:18:00 UTC - 22:18 | Permalink

        On his blog, Ehrman said there were “dozens” of independent sources for Jesus. Even granting him all the imaginary sources he often lists in his books and lectures, I’m not able to come up with a number >= 24.

        • R Pence
          2016-11-03 18:05:17 UTC - 18:05 | Permalink

          It’s disingenuousness all over the place. How can you with a good conscience include hypothetical sources among your ‘two dozen’, however compelling the case for them (and for many it’s not compelling)? How can you then say ‘dozens’ because technically two dozen means ‘dozens’?

          I’ll never forget reading the Ehrman piece on The Huffington Post where he said we ‘have’ Q.

          This isn’t just scholarly inertia, a reluctance to part with a traditional concept, or even a paradigm hard to overturn. I submit there’s an ideological program behind Ehrman’s ‘historical Jesus’. It’s a matter for debate just what that program is.

  • 2016-11-02 20:28:27 UTC - 20:28 | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this blog. Here’s a link I’d think would be of interest to some on this topic and here are a couple quotes from it:

    Scholarly Opinion by Earl Doherty

    “Why is it that no individual scholar or group of scholars has undertaken a concerted effort in recent times to discredit the mythicist position? (The brief addresses that have been made to it in various publications are outlined in my Main Article “Postscript”.) In the heyday of the great mythicists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few valiant efforts were offered. However, both mainstream scholarship and the mythicist branch itself have made dramatic leaps since then. Biblical research has moved into bold new territory in the last several decades: unearthing a wealth of ancient documents, arriving at a new understanding of elements like Q, the sectarian nature of early Christianity, the Cynic roots of the great Gospel teachings, and so on; an almost unprecedented “critical” dimension to New Testament scholarship has emerged.

    And yet the mythicist position continues to be vilified, disdained, dismissed. We would condemn any physicist, any anthropologist, any linguist, any mathematician, any scholar of any sort who professes to work in a field that makes even a partial bow to principles of logic and scientific research who yet ignored, reviled, condemned largely without examination a legitimate, persistent theory in his or her discipline. There are tremendous problems in New Testament research, problems that have been grappled with for generations and show no sign of getting closer to solution. Agreement is lacking on countless topics, and yesterday’s theories are being continually overturned. There is almost a civil war going on within the ranks of Jesus study. Why not give the mythicist option some serious consideration? Why not honestly evaluate it to see if it could provide some of the missing answers? Or, if it turns out that the case is fatally flawed, then put it to rest once and for all.

    Doing that would require one essential thing: taking it seriously, approaching the subject having an open mind that the theory might have some merit. Sadly, that is the most difficult step and the one which most critics have had the greatest difficulty taking. It is all in the mindset, whether of the Christian believer whose confessional interests are overriding, or of the professional scholar who could never consider that their life’s work might be fatally compromised.”

    “The Mythicist case has been rebutted? Really? When did that happen? The arguments of the Mythicist camp have never been refuted – they have only been steadfastly ignored.” “…As for this tiresome business about there being “no scholar” or “no serious scholar” who advocates the Christ Myth theory: Isn’t it obvious that scholarly communities are defined by certain axioms in which grad students are trained, and that they will lose standing in those communities if they depart from those axioms? The existence of an historical Jesus is currently one of those. That should surprise no one, especially with the rightward lurch of the Society for Biblical Literature in recent years. It simply does not matter how many scholars hold a certain opinion…. ”

    – Dr. Robert Price, Biblical Scholar with two Ph.D’s

    Mythicism and the Ph.D.: A Brief History
    http://www.freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=3110

    ;

  • R Pence
    2016-11-03 19:09:13 UTC - 19:09 | Permalink

    I don’t go in for ‘dangerous’ ideas even though it seems like it’s the big new thing. Even so-called radical Islam doesn’t consist of dangerous ideas as far as I’m concerned. Rather, there are only dangerous acts. I can believe all I want that people should be eliminated from the earth. But until I actually go shoot up that Starbuck’s or release a deadly virus into the wild, there is no danger.

    Now, an objection immediately springs to mind among those who view cognitive space ecologically – which is to say, those who tacitly believe that cognitive constructs, like industry, always have an environmental cost. This may sound like a strange way to put it, but in academic wrangling over cosmopolitanism one encounters arguments against (national) sovereignty inasmuch as refineries in one country, for example, have environmental effects in another, etc. You can sort of see all of these different problematics developing in parallel today, with the ‘dangerous’ ideas concept sort of implying or assuming a lack of sovereignty when it comes to the cognitive domain, e.g. ‘You are not automatically allowed to have any ideas you wish because we all share a world, and your ideas comes with Effects X, Y, and Z, etc.’

    Here Historical Jesus Studies (we might as well rename New Testament Studies such) is sort of mimicking the discourse of the master, speaking power to truth rather than truth to power: your ideas (which we oppose) are dangerous (because they are not ours). On the one hand, you can say how the mighty have fallen: it has taken New Testament Studies/secular apologetics quite a few years to deploy this ‘dangerous’ ideas trope. On the other hand, it shows that NT Studies as a field stands together with so many other fields that seek to drop the boot on your neck.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2016-11-03 22:08:18 UTC - 22:08 | Permalink

    How dangerous is Mythicism? It poses a mortal threat to one’s Christian faith! To a non-believer, it matters not whether whether a mortal Jesus existed. But to believe in a Jesus who was both god and man, the existence of an historical man-Jesus is a prerequisite. Even to momentarily entertain the proposition that the gospels are fictional, is to peer into the abyss of apostasy. That’s far too scary for the ardent believer; hence the virulent, irrational counter-attacks against mythicism and all who propose it.

    • Steven C Watson
      2016-11-16 23:14:03 UTC - 23:14 | Permalink

      Matt Cavanaugh, priests telling me shit that Paul and Mark didn’t write is what did for my Christian faith. We can point to other authors in the New Testament that were comfortable with a mythical Christ Jesus and to other authors in the New Testament that, if they were not comfortable with a mythical Christ Jesus themselves, clearly knew others who were. Thomas L Brodie is a Roman Catholic priest… I needn’t go on: that a mythical Christ Jesus isn’t a threat to the Christian faith is obvious from knowing there have been Christians who have held that position from the moment His Lordship whispered in Cephas’ ear to the present.

      • Matt Cavanaugh
        2016-11-17 01:18:46 UTC - 01:18 | Permalink

        Brodie resolved his dilemma by embracing gnosis. So, while a certain form of (gnostic) Christian faith is in theory compatible with a mythical Jesus, the major Christian faiths are all wholly dependent on an historical Jesus.

      • MrHorse
        2016-11-17 02:30:12 UTC - 02:30 | Permalink

        Matt, I’d say the major Christian faiths and their more literalist adherents are attentive to the narratives of a human Jesus while being unquestioning or unsure of the mechanisms for His virgin birth or his resurrection or Ascension, and also being unquestioning for other miraculous events.

        • Matt Cavanaugh
          2016-11-18 01:27:18 UTC - 01:27 | Permalink

          Tru dat. The concept of “Mystery” is like duct tape — universal tool to hold together anything.

  • Tal
    2016-11-04 09:52:17 UTC - 09:52 | Permalink

    Does McGrath think that the Tim O’Neill’s of the world are more likely to convert to Christianity than mythicists? Because as a Christian, why would the celestial Jesus of the Doherty-Carrier thesis bother him more than the historical Jesus of atheists?

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2016-11-04 17:38:45 UTC - 17:38 | Permalink

      For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man

      is why.

      The “Doherty-Carrier thesis”?? What is this exactly; what was Carrier’s unique contribution to it; how does it differ from the theses of, say, Drew or Wells?

      • Tal
        2016-11-06 13:21:03 UTC - 13:21 | Permalink

        “how does it differ from the theses of, say, Drew or Wells?”
        I don’t know, I’ve never read anything by Drew or Wells.

        “what was Carrier’s unique contribution to it?”
        I could be wrong but I think it’s the idea of the angel “Joshua” found in Philo and the book of Zechariah.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-11-06 16:43:50 UTC - 16:43 | Permalink

          I would suggest it best more accurately be labelled the Couchoud-Doherty thesis. Each appears to have arrived at the idea independently.

        • Matt Cavanaugh
          2016-11-13 17:47:58 UTC - 17:47 | Permalink

          I could be wrong but I think it’s the idea of the angel “Joshua” found in Philo and the book of Zechariah.

          On that particular observation, Carrier was ninja’d a century or more ago by Bauer, Bollard, Couchoud, and Drews. (Not ‘couched’ and ‘drew’, damn spellcheck!)

          In any case, it’s one thing to posit that Philo’s syncretism of greek philosophy with Judaism influenced &/or reflected a pre-christian concept of a celestial Standing One. It’s quite another to seize upon a Joshua-Logos reference in Philo, recall that Christ Jesus is called the Logos in John and elsewhere, thus conclude it’s “obvious” that no one expected this Joshua/Logos spirit to ever descend to Earth and inhabit a mortal man, or that no one ever claiming to be imbued with this spirit ever attracted any followers.

  • James D williams
    2016-11-04 21:57:09 UTC - 21:57 | Permalink

    “NT Studies protects magical thinking and respects people who propose unscientific, supernatural answers to explain natural phenomena.”

    True Dat!
    I did wiki ‘Continental Drift’ and Weggener, and ‘Germ Theory’, and Velikovsky Reconsidered (to be inclusive…the gas giants have ‘drifted’).
    Christianity needs a “plausible force” to explain its phenomena…the existence of which was denied correctly or not in the above.
    How that Christian ‘force’ is ‘plausibly’ distinct from others, gosh, I dunno.

    Happily, Vridar freely offers background for the magical. So much fun! Thank you!

  • Steven Carr
    2016-11-06 07:55:00 UTC - 07:55 | Permalink

    Some concepts are just very dangerous.

    Bart Ehrman can write things like ‘I argued that Christians invented the idea of a suffering messiah’ https://ehrmanblog.org/the-death-of-the-messiah-for-salvation/

    If you claim Christians invented the idea of a suffering Messiah, you are a respected scholar.

    If you claim Christians invented the idea of a crucified Messiah, you are a fringe wacko.

    Why?

  • 2016-11-06 22:26:47 UTC - 22:26 | Permalink

    Someone should ask McGrath what he thinks is more probable: that Jesus was the literal son of God and every miracle in the NT actually happened as written, or that Jesus didn’t exist.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-11-07 06:25:18 UTC - 06:25 | Permalink

      I think that’s a fine idea.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2016-11-07 08:05:50 UTC - 08:05 | Permalink

        We have seen with our eyes in his “reviews” of Doherty and Carrier, and most recently we have heard with our ears in his exchange with Fitzgerald, that neither paragraph nor sentence can enter into the consciousness and hearing of the Professor — all he can see and hear is his own voice that interrupts, rides over, misreads, mis-hears whatever a mythicist argument or question might say. I can predict exactly how he will twist that question and throw it back in the face of the questioner. Mythicists can only understand an either/or view of the gospels, just like the fundamentalists they always have been.

      • Matt Cavanaugh
        2016-11-13 17:56:22 UTC - 17:56 | Permalink

        As with every question put to him, McGrath will simply reply with another question. Dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge!

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