10 myths + 4

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by Neil Godfrey

I have in the past discussed various misunderstandings or misrepresentations of mythicist arguments, and notice I have earlier discussed one more myth that is not included in the previous post’s list of 10.

Myth #11

Mythicists argue that someone made up a story about recent real historical events and invented persons, and that significant numbers of people (who could have known better) suddenly began to believe in this newly constructed history of the recent past.

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Ten myths about mythicist arguments, as advanced by James McGrath

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Myth Busters
MYTHBUSTERS. Image by Studio H (Chris) via Flickr

Myth #1

Mythicist arguments do not reflect an understanding of the historical enterprise

James has said he believes mythicists are wanting absolute certainty before they will accept the existence of Jesus, but that the historical enterprise by its nature only deals with probabilities, not certainties. (See Mythicist Misunderstanding)

It is clear that James has not read any of the works of mythicist authors such as Doherty. I personally lean tentatively towards the mythicist case on the probabilities suggested by the evidence. In discussions with Doherty and other mythicists the questions are always couched in terms of probabilities.

I found this particular accusation of McGrath’s most surprising. I would be very interested if he (or anyone) could find any supporting evidence for his claim in any mythicist arguments such as Doherty’s or Wells’ — or in scholarly publications of Thompson and Price that are at the very least agnostic on the question. It has certainly not been my experience with mythicist arguments. (And James has admitted he only gets his knowledge about mythicism from his take on people who email him or write comments on his blog about it.)

More recently James has attempted to defend what passes as biblical scholarship’s “tools for sifting through the evidence” in Mythunderstanding The Criteria of Authenticity. He is referring to “criteria of authenticity”, such as “the criterion of embarrassment”. What he fails to understand is that such so-called “tools” are themselves based on the assumption of historicity itself. They merely bring to the text the presumption of historicity, and preclude any other sort of question. The use of these “tools” in order to establish the historicity of Jesus is a circular process.

There are mainstream biblical scholars who have themselves questioned and rejected the value of these tools. If James wishes to address mythicist arguments seriously he needs to acknowledge this fact.

The tools themselves can be used to argue for both authenticity and inauthenticity of a text. For example, one can say that by the criterion of embarrassment that early Christians would not have made up a story about the disciples deserting Jesus in Gethsemane. But then the criterion that says if a story is said to have “fulfilled a prophecy”, then it is likely to be fiction. And the same narrative of the disciples fleeing is also said to be a fulfilment of prophecy. So one can use tools to argue that this episode is either historical or unhistorical.

Another is the criterion of dissimilarity. If a saying is dissimilar from what might be expected from contemporaries of Jesus, then it is judged probably authentic. Of course this means that Jesus could not have said anything similar to what his contemporaries said! Mainstream scholars, and James too, I am sure, know this. So for James to present such “tools” as if they are a reliable means for establishing historicity is disingenuous.

These tools in fact are “criteria” for supposedly “establishing” if an episode within a narrative is likely to be historical — given the prior starting assumption that there is a historical event or saying or person to be discovered. (I have discussed these “tools” a number of times, most recently in relation to Funk’s use of them, but more fully in relation to a publication by Craig Evans.)

Added about an hour after original posting:
James likes to claim that the historical methods used by biblical scholars are comparable to the methods of historical studies generally. They are not. I know of no other historical discipline that seeks to “create” or decide what will be “the evidence” on the basis of such tools. The evidence is there to begin with, and tools are developed to help analyze the evidence, but not to decide what is evidence or not! In this respect, biblical studies appear to me to be claiming an exemption from normal historical methods. They need exemptions. Otherwise, I suspect, they are left with no evidence for their historical model.

Myth #2

Mythicists do not address the arguments of mainstream biblical scholarship

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