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Richard Carrier Replies: McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier continues his response to James McGrath’s criticism of Carrier’s On the Historicity of JesusMcGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype. He begins: 

Yesterday I addressed McGrath’s confused critique of portions of On the Historicity of Jesus (in McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy). He has also published a second entry in what promises to be a series about OHJ, this one titled “Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype” . . . . This entry is even less useful than the first. Here are my thoughts on that.

Once again Neil Godfrey already tackles the failures of logic and accuracy in the very first comment that posted after the above article. Which he has reproduced, with an introduction, in better formatting on his own blog: Once More: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus.

I could leave it at that, really.

TL;DR: McGrath doesn’t understand the difference between a prior probability and a posterior probability; he uses definitions inconsistently to get fake results that he wants (instead of being rigorously consistent in order to see what actually results); and he shows no sign of having read my chapter on this (ch. 6 of OHJ) and never once rebuts anything in it, even though it extensively rebuts his whole article (because I was psychic…or rather, I had already heard all of these arguments before, so I wrote a whole damned chapter to address them…which McGrath then duly and completely ignores, and offers zero response to).

That’s pretty much it.

But now for the long of it…

McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype



Carrier on McGrath’s responses to Carrier

by Neil Godfrey

A handy collation of Richard Carrier’s responses to James’ McGrath’s less-than-professional attacks on Carrier’s work is found in the Introduction to Raphael Lataster’s book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists:

What academic disease does this signify?

[5] See Richard Carrier, “McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman” (25 March 2012); “McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy” (5 March 2015); “McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype” (6 March 2015). Possibly that series will continue.

[6] His false claims about the content of my book are documented in Richard Carrier, “In Which James McGrath Reveals That He Is a Fundamentalist Who Has Never Read Any Contemporary Scholarship in His Field” (11 September 2015). He did the same thing in his faulty review of Proving History. See: Richard Carrier, “McGrath on Proving History” (10 September 2012). McGrath has done this so routinely now that I have had to conclude he is deliberately lying. For he cannot possibly be that incompetent.

[7] For all of these, see Richard Carrier, “Okay, So What about the Historicity of Spartacus?” (5 July 2015).

McGrath has only published responses to historicity on his personal blog (Exploring Our Matrix), and in an online trade publication (Bible & Interpretation) that is also not peer reviewed. In these open venues he has made such embarrassingly false claims about the ancient world in defense of the historicity of Jesus as to deeply call into question the competence of his opinion in the matter.[5] And he all too often makes wildly false claims about the arguments in my book, rather than addressing what it actually says.[6]

McGrath evinced this behavior even before reading my book. For example, he argued confidently that no Christians would erect inscriptions promoting their gospel because only government officials erected inscriptions. That this is wildly not true is bad enough, and that he wouldn’t know it’s untrue is worse, but that he was so arrogant in his ignorance that he never even thought to check and make sure before resting his argument on it, is worst of all. And indicative of the problem. Historians who would defend the historicity of Jesus aren’t doing their jobs as historians. And all too often, they literally don’t know what they are talking about. This is commonly observed in the frequency with which historicists claim the evidence for Jesus is as good as we have for Socrates, Alexander the Great, Spartacus, and Julius and Tiberius Caesar. That they would be so ignorant as to think that was true is shocking.[7] But more shocking is that they didn’t even check before asserting it. What academic disease does this signify?

The example of inscriptions illustrates the other problem as well. McGrath falsely implied that I endorse the lack of early inscriptions as an argument for the non-existence of Jesus. In fact I have publicly rejected that argument and explained why it doesn’t work (there are many reasons Christians would fail to erect such inscriptions even if Jesus did exist; just not the reason McGrath gave). McGrath routinely makes false claims like this about what I or my book argue. Many far more galling than this. Such as claiming my book relies on conspiracy theories, when in fact my book repeatedly denounces them. Or claiming I don’t adduce any allegorical meanings to explain Gospel pericopes but just assert they must have them, and using that as an argument against the merits of my book, when in fact I devote almost an entire chapter of the book to doing that, in fact not just adducing such meanings, but in many cases arguing for them, and citing peer reviewed scholarship that does the same – none of which facts McGrath informs his readers of. Or claiming I didn’t make an argument for a conclusion but just asserted it in the book (such as that a given miracle story is not likely to be true, or that a given word can too easily have come from a targum to be certain it came from a source about Jesus), when in fact, in every case, the book contains an extensive argument for that conclusion. An argument he fails to tell his readers about (and thus certainly offers no rebuttal to).

It should be a fundamental requirement of competent and honest scholarship to correctly represent the arguments of anyone you disagree with, and rebut their actual arguments, not arguments they never made, or conveniently distorted variants of arguments they did make, or to falsely claim they didn’t make any arguments to rebut. It is a disgrace for a scholar to use falsehood like this. Worse even to do so as arguments against a book they are reviewing. Yet these aren’t the only instances. McGrath does this a lot. Why? If historicity is so evidenced as to be certain, why do arguments against it have to be misrepresented to rebut them? Is it because the actual arguments can’t be rebutted? So fake arguments have to be contrived to knock down instead? That does not make it sound like historicity is so certain to me.

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 114-147). Kindle Edition.



Once more: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Part two of a scholar’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus has appeared on the Bible and Interpretation site and once again the reviewer has deftly avoided any mention of Richard Carrier’s argument. More positively, however, he has managed to insinuate the possibility that Carrier is “deliberately misleading” (character smear is de rigueur for some anti-mythicists) and incompetently demonstrated his own ignorance of the nature and origin of twenty-two elements commonly listed in the “Rank-Raglan” hero archetypes. But he is a renowned “credible scholar” and is called upon to deliver papers against mythicism at conferences, so no doubt among his peers will be those who read exactly what they want to read in his review.

Here is the response I posted at Bible and Interpretationread more »


The Rank-Raglan Hero-Type (and Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

heroHis mother is a virgin and he’s reputed to be the son of a god; he loses favor and is driven from his kingdom to a sorrowful death—sound familiar? In The Hero, Lord Raglan contends that the heroic figures from myth and legend are invested with a common pattern that satisfies the human desire for idealization. Raglan outlines 22 characteristic themes or motifs from the heroic tales and illustrates his theory with events from the lives of characters from Oedipus (21 out a possible 22 points) to Robin Hood (a modest 13). A fascinating study that relates details from world literature with a lively wit and style, it was acclaimed by literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman as “a bold, speculative, and brilliantly convincing demonstration that myths are never historical but are fictional narratives derived from ritual dramas.” This book will appeal to scholars of folklore and mythology, history, literature and general readers as well. (Blurb from online edition of The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama by Lord Raglan) 

The 22 typical incidents in mythical tales

(1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin;

(2) His father is a king, and

(3) Often a near relative of his mother, but

(4) The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and

(5) He is also reputed to be the son of a god.

(6) At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but

(7) He is spirited away, and

(8) Reared by foster-parents in a far country.

(9) We are told nothing of his childhood, but

(10) On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.

(11) After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,

(12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and

(13) Becomes king.

(14) For a time he reigns uneventfully, and

(15) Prescribes laws, but

(16) Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects, and

(17) Is driven from the throne and city, after which

(18) He meets with a mysterious death,

(19) Often at the top of a hill.

(20) His children, if any, do not succeed him.

(21) His body is not buried, but nevertheless

(22) He has one or more holy sepulchres.

The first thing that needs to be clear is that Lord Raglan has drawn these parallel motifs from what he terms “genuine mythology” — meaning “mythology connected with ritual”. That excludes mythical tales of the King Arthur sort. Raglan is interested in myths that appear to have been associated with ancient rituals as acted out in dramatic shows (e.g. the Dionysia, May Day rituals, Passion plays) and religious ceremonies. The sorts of myths under examination should be clear from the following words in chapter 13 of The Hero:

The theory that all traditional narratives are myths—that is to say, that they are connected with ritual—may be maintained upon five grounds: 

  1. That there is no other satisfactory way in which they can be explained. . . .
  2. That these narratives are concerned primarily and chiefly with supernatural beings, kings, and heroes. 
  3. That miracles play a large part in them. 
  4. That the same scenes and incidents appear in many parts of the world. 
  5. That many of these scenes and incidents are explicable in terms of known rituals.

The Hero is close to a century old now so much of Raglan’s discussion is dated, but not all. It is still worth reading, I think, especially where he discusses misconceptions that lead moderns into assuming historicity of many ancient persons and arguments for the link between rituals and myths. It is certainly essential reading for anyone who intends to take up a serious discussion on the relevance of the twenty-two motifs identified as parallels across so many myths.

Common errors in using the 22 points

Often discussions of Raglan’s 22 characteristics of the myth-hero falter for the following reasons:

  1. Discussions are often about counting points and deciding the historical or non-historical likelihood of a figure according to a number total.
    • Raglan makes it clear, however, that the numbers alone do not address something else that is far more important for assessing someone’s historicity.
  2. Discussions very often fail to account for the real meaning or significance of the 22 characteristics.
    • They therefore make assessments based on the letter rather than the spirit of mytho-types.
  3. Discussions centre around the truncated list form of the 22 points.
    • As a consequence the full meaning of some of those points is lost and discussions go awry on misunderstandings.

1. When historical persons are on the list

The emphasis many place upon the number count for assessing historicity no doubt derives from Raglan’s own assessment early in his book: read more »


What Is Euhemerism?

by Tim Widowfield
chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Hu...

Chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Huxley. Caption read “A great Med’cine-Man among the Inquiring Redskins”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Note: This post reflects my perspective. Neil is not responsible for any of the following content. –Tim]

We have Thomas Huxley to thank for the word Darwinism, which he coined in 1860 in a review of On the Origin of Species. In modern times, of course, creationists have misused the term, applying it to any theory of natural evolution, and even to the study of abiogenesis. They continue to embrace the “ism” since bolsters their assertion that evolution is a kind of belief system, just as irrational as religion.

What is Darwinism? 

Simply stated, Darwinism is the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection. Technically, the terms Darwinism and biological evolution are not entirely synonymous, since theories of evolution existed before Charles Darwin. I recall being taken aback when I first read that Charles’ grandfather Erasmus had written a poem suggesting all forms of life were interrelated and had evolved to their present state. And well before Charles published his book, Jean-Baptiste Larmarck had proposed a theory of evolution based on the idea that organisms acquire traits during their lives, and later pass them on (somehow) to their offspring.

Darwinism differs from other competing theories of evolution in its mechanism for change. It makes no sense, then, to apply the term to other theories that posit some process other than gradual modification through natural selection.

Nor is it technically correct to call today’s modern synthesis “Darwinism,” since it embraces two other important foundational concepts, namely mutation theory and Mendelian genetics. So those who would today call an evolutionary biologist a Darwinist betray their ignorance of evolution, Darwin, and biology in general.

A less familiar term, euhemerism, from time to time suffers similar misuse. How should we define this word? We might explain it, following Dr. Richard Carrier, as “doing what Euhemerus did.

But then we have to ask, “Well, what was that?”

read more »


Blocked by the Exploding Cakemix

by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath has finally got rid of the one gad-fly who continually sought to keep him honest in his reviews of mythicist works and to pull him up when he substituted ad hominem for reasoned argument. No wonder, most recently one of his supporters complained to me that I was making him look incompetent. But since McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s book I have been posting more frequently on his blog — especially since I have found him to be almost as unprofessional as he was with Doherty’s book. I guess I’ll have to return to re-posting my comments on his reviews here, now, instead.

The two reviews of Carrier’s book to which I have responded on both the Bible and Interp site and McG’s blog are


Screen shot 2014-12-29 at 10.39.39 AM

I attempted to deliver this post shortly after I sent James McGrath the following email in response to his spamming another comment of mine. I was bemused that there were so many comments expressing indignation over Valerie Tarico referring to her three interviewees as “scholars” at one point and nothing addressing the actual points raised for discussion and exploration:
read more »


A Pause – and What’s Been Happening on This Side

by Neil Godfrey

The reason I’ve been slow to complete a new post lately is mainly because I’m buried in so much new reading. The major reading project that has taken most of my time is attempting to get on top of the relationships between the various Old Testament and Second Temple books as they address, in particular, the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12) and the Suffering Servant. The Suffering Servant — and his Messianic function — did have an impact on some Jewish sects before Christianity emerged on the scene. The difficulty is – and this is why I’ve been so involved in more reading than writing lately — that each book I read raises further citations that I am keen to track down and also read more fully.

Recently I read and wrote about Raglan’s hero classification scheme. That, and hearing that another scholar (another one who is primarily an ancient historian and not a theologian) had applied Propp’s work on folktales to the story of the Exodus, prompted me to read Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. I have nearly completed this now and have been wondering if and how it might apply to the Gospels. Reading this has meant I’ve had to pause my study of Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked that takes another perspective on the way mythology is put together. I don’t know yet how much of all of this I’ll find applicable to the Gospels but I’m interested in working on that project once I’ve got a handle on both Propp and Lévi-Strauss.

And I’m also reading several articles (some quite lengthy ones) that a few readers have asked me to take a look at and comment on.

So it’s been a time of learning more than writing lately. (But the act of organizing thoughts for writing, and double-checking things, is also when I learn the most thoroughly.)

My writing outlet has come in sporadic comments on the forum and the occasional comments on other blogs.  read more »