Tag Archives: It is absurd to suggest . . .

Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

When I consulted my reading notes for the recent post on Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I noticed a couple of things I had meant to comment on, but left out. In this post I seek to atone for my sins of omission.

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“It is absurd to suggest . . .” — Shirley Jackson Case on The Historicity of Jesus

Shirley Jackson Case

Shirley Jackson Case — Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01582, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Way back in the previous century, I attended Ohio University at Athens. A young, naive freshman, I headed off one gloomy autumn day to the campus library, searching for source material for an astronomy paper. The stacks were vast; I was looking at more books than I had ever seen in one place.

By New World standards, OU is an old school, founded in 1804, the year after Ohio entered the Union. They’ve been gathering books and periodicals for quite some time.

According to Wikipedia, the Vernon R. Alden Library has switched completely from the Dewey Decimal System to the Library of Congress System. However, back in 1977 they were still in transition. All the old books were in Dewey, but the staff were categorizing new acquisitions using LOC codes. I gravitated to the old stacks, perhaps because I was more comfortable with the older numbering system. Or maybe I just like the smell of old books.

Ready Steady Go!

At any rate, that day I came upon Fred Hoyle’s Astronomy from 1962. Hoyle, of course, believed in the Steady State theory of the universe. This was my first introduction to it, and I found it fascinating. So I wrote a short paper on the subject, based on Hoyle’s treatment. What my naive freshman self didn’t know was that just a couple of years after Hoyle published Astronomy, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson found the echo of the Big Bang — background radiation evenly spread throughout the sky, compelling evidence for the origins of our universe.

[I find it mildly ironic that while writing this post, news has arrived that calls into question the Big Bang. Try wrapping your head around this: “Brian Koberlein from the Rochester Institute of Technology pointed out that while it may appear that the study suggests that the Big Bang did not happen, the event still occurred.“]

While reading Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I was reminded of that incident from my youth. As I recall, the teacher’s aide who graded my paper was more forgiving than I deserved. But I learned my lesson. It’s all right to have some familiarity with older research, but the careful student will always keep up with the most recent work in the field.

On the bright side, because Case’s book is over a century old Google (before it lost interest in such altruistic efforts) has lovingly scanned it and put on line. You can even download a PDF copy or read it at archive.org. On the other hand, because he wrote it nearly 103 years ago, some of the arguments are a little stale.  read more »

“It is absurd to suggest. . . . ” (A rare bird among the anti-mythicists)

3D Book cover_aGood old reliable Professor James McGrath and a few of his peers*, blissfully unaware of some of the highly respected names both within and outside New Testament scholarship who have happened to be bold enough to declare their maverick suspicions that there was no historical Jesus, make it clear that if you come out as seriously pondering such a view in their presence they will shut you up immediately scornfully mocking and insulting you. If you dare to ask why they insist the view is such a stupid one they will often enough declare that the arguments have been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This post continues a little series responding to the assertion that the Christ myth notion has long ago been dealt with and demolished. Rather, we will conclude that it has been more generally ignored. The most recent attempts to have dealt with it (McGrath, Casey) are more about character-assassination of those who post anything sympathetic to the idea and about ridiculing caricatures of the arguments. (Ehrman, as has by now been well demonstrated, appears not to have even read, or at least read incredibly superficially, the arguments he set out to refute.) I myself have never posted an argument for the Christ myth theory, but along with a good many others I can see some gaping logical holes in the arguments used to defend the assumption that Jesus did exist. In addition to rationalisations of this assumption we often encounter even liberal scholars resorting to rhetorical questions that essentially appeal to the expected ignorance or lack of imagination of their lay audience.

Of the names carelessly assumed to have long ago accomplished the intellectual demolition of mythicism we have seen that our first two, Goguel and Wood, explicitly stated at the outset of their works that they were NOT going to seriously address the arguments of the mythicists.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Howell Smith was not a professional scholar so perhaps that is why his book arguing against the mythicists of his day is not so well known. His book, Jesus Not a Myth, however, is well informed by the scholarship of his day. As we saw in the previous post Howell Smith in 1942 noted how very few scholars in the English speaking world had taken up the case against mythicism and those who had were flawed by their conservative religious bias. It was for that reason he wrote the book I am discussing in this post, Christ Not a Myth.

Howell Smith’s work stands out for its occasional acknowledgement of strengths in some of the mythicist argument. I am not sure I have encountered any contemporary scholar who is prepared to concede any ground whatever to mythicist arguments, a trait that smells like polemics born of insecurity and fear rather than genuine engagement with the arguments. Here are some of my earlier posts covering Howell Smith’s refreshingly honest arguments.

James the Brother of The Lord

Yes, it really is possible to question that famous passage in Galatians where Paul speaks of the “James, the brother of the Lord” — a phrase that is most commonly misquoted as “brother of Jesus” by those using it to rhetorically hammer mythicists. Howell Smith, however, is confident enough to openly concede that scholarly arguments are not uniformly and utterly watertight:

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“It is absurd to suggest. . . “: The Overlooked Critic of Mythicism (+ A Catalog of Early Mythicists and Their Critics)

3D Book cover_aThis continues the little “It’s absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism” series inspired by the unbearable lightness of the wisdom of Professor James McGrath. The previous post saw how Professor Larry Hurtado’s source for the comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist, H.G. Wood’s Did Christ Really Live?, in reality explicitly points out to the reader that it is not a comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist. The next candidate for a publication having considered “the strongest case for mythicism” that I consider is A. D. Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth (1942).

Curiously I have not seen this book mentioned by any modern scholars who emphatically declare that mythicist arguments have long since been addressed and decisively demolished. This is curious because Howell Smith really does address the major mythicist arguments of his day. Similarly surprisingly few anti-mythicists today cite Schweitzer as having delivered the death-knell to mythicism. We will see an interesting similarity between ways S and H-S each argue their case for Jesus’s historicity.

I will save some of the details of Howell Smith’s arguments for my next post. Here I want only to introduce A. D. Howell Smith to those of us who only dimly recall my post on his Preface three years ago. I have reformatted it and added subheadings and bolding. Jesus Not a Myth was published in 1942, not long after the appearance of H. G. Wood’s title with the same purpose.

I conclude with a summary of the various Christ-myth views widely known at the time.

Something was sometimes different back then

Notice the way our author actually has some positive things to say about the mythicists he is about to debate. It sounds surreal to read such things given our familiarity with the demonization and gratuitous insults we routinely expect from the McGraths, the Hurtados, the Caseys, the Hoffmanns etc. McGrath, Hurtado and Casey would have readers think mythicism is no more rational or informed than are flat-earthers or moon-landing hoaxers. Seventy years ago Howell Smith (along with Goguel and Wood and Schweitzer and other critics) actually acknowledged the rational spirit infusing mythicism and the names of several prominent and esteemed scholars and others who at the very least toyed with the plausibility of the Christ myth idea. Today’s critics — are there any exceptions? — are far more universally savage in their personal attacks and far more dogged in their refusal to allow any mythicist proposition to be accorded the faintest touch of rationality. Is this a sign of some desperation that the idea just won’t ever seem to go away? Or is it a symptom of the crudeness of an American-Christian dominated scholarship by contrast with the kind of religious ambience of Europe in an earlier generation?

Within perhaps the last twenty years the denial that Jesus ever existed has been changed from a paradox to almost a platitude for an increasing number of Rationalists, and occasionally a Christian of strong modernist leanings shows himself more or less sympathetic to it.  read more »

“It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist

This post continues on from It is absurd to suggest. . . . It’s about a much lesser known anti-mythicist than Goguel but I will excuse myself for that anomaly on the grounds that Goguel’s book is freely available on the web and many would have read it already. Maurice Goguel is evidently R. Joseph Hoffmann’s favourite anti-mythicist; this time we look at the man in Larry Hurtado’s corner.

3D Book cover 2Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, turns to Herbert George Wood as the author of the once-and-for-all answer to mythicism.

But another reason for feeling it less than necessary to spend a lot of time on the matter is that all the skeptical arguments have been made and effectively engaged many decades ago. Before posting this, I spent a bit of time perusing my copy of H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, which was published in 1938. In it, Wood cites various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, and patiently and cordially engages the specifics of evidence and argument, showing that the attacks fail.

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate! (My emphasis)

Hurtado can no more imagine Jesus being non-historical than he can imagine believing the earth is flat. He would even find the very prospect of trying to demonstrate “the obvious” “a bit wearying”. Once again we see a theologian equate his discipline with complexities and certainties found in the hard sciences like astronomy. Anyone who disputes the claims of either is a kook. (We addressed this fallacy in the first post of this series.)

Evidently Hurtado has never felt any need to update himself with mythicist arguments of today, nor even does it appear he has ever acquainted himself with any of them at any time. He read a book published in 1938 and that clearly put the whole question at rest as far as he is concerned. That book, he informs us, “engages the specifics of evidence and argument”, so what else can possibly be said?

Herbert George Wood, 1938

The dedication of Wood’s book reads:

in the hope that both
may open their eyes

In his Preface Wood worries about young people being led astray by the Christ Myth theory of his day:

More young people than we often realize are troubled or misled by the suggestion that Jesus never lived. We cannot rightly ignore the subject. And revivals of interest in the Christ-myth are not unlikely.

In Chicago Wood visited a Russian Workers’ Club and observed the equation of the Christ-Myth idea with “any Marxist anti-God campaign” . . . .

and this book may serve as a kind of spiritual air raid precaution — a preservative against poison gas.

I have thought it best not to traverse the stock arguments of Christ-myth theorists

Recall that Goguel made it clear in his preface that he had no intention of actually engaging with the Christ myth arguments themselves. Wood begins the same way: read more »

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

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. read more »

Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?


Some professors make a false equation between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and hard sciences/mathematics on the other and imply both are equally incomprehensible to the general public.

Once again we see a representative of the elite coterie of theologians pouring scorn on the ability of mere lay people to make any valid assessment of their highly learned and scholarly arguments.

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Professor James McGrath, Galileo was Wrong, 8th May 2014, my emphasis)

Of course the first thing one notes here is the mischievous framing of the question. Our theologian friend makes it sound as if what is open to challenge are the complex details of “data”, the facts, let’s say the nuances of Greek, Syriac and Aramaic texts, and so forth, by only partially informed amateurs and whether they should be so flippant on a “normal” every-day basis.

Of course that is not what the issue is at all. In matters of historical inquiry there is no argument or data that is so complex that it cannot be explained simply and understood by the average anybody. History is not advanced mathematics or quantum physics. If theologians have good arguments for the historical existence of Jesus then there is no reason they cannot be presented in a way that is comprehensible to all.

To this extent the Professor is being a little misleading when he implies that the views of theologians (and let’s add historians here, too) and scientists deserve equally unquestioning acceptance by the public. A historian can explain to me clearly in a way I can understand the reasons, the evidence, for his or her claims and I can understand the arguments of other historians who disagree. I cannot do the same with scholars who debate questions in mathematics or complex physics and the origins of the universe. I have forgotten too much of the science I once learned to pretend I can even fully understand or evaluate the research of climate scientists.

Unfortunately McGrath’s post fails to grasp this basic point. In his failure to grasp the fact that there really is a vast gulf between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and the hard sciences/mathematics on the other when it comes to the potential for public understanding, he probably fails to realize how patronizing his stance really is.

That is, his argument takes a turn that sets up an ignorant elitist gulf between academics generally and a riff-raff public.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that academics are not superior to others at some things. There would be real problems if they weren’t. Universities can truly be said to contain more of the most intelligent members of society than other institutions. But anyone who works among academics, whether as an academic or support staff, also knows that a few of them truly are the most arrogant, insufferable snobs. I am sure Professor McGrath is not one of those, but he does unfortunately express a snobbish — certainly a breathtakingly thoughtless — argument in his post.)

Before we turn our attention to the elephant in the room, maybe I could use my own way of evaluating scholarly arguments to make the point that a lay amateur really can make valid evaluations of scholarly arguments. If Professor McGrath or anyone else can find serious error and a propensity for misjudgment in how I go about assessing scholarly claims I would love to be told. I have been seriously wrong about things before so I have tried to hone my methods of learning to try to be less wrong now.

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