Ten myths about mythicist arguments, as advanced by James McGrath

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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

James has made this claim here and elsewhere. Doherty’s and Well’s books are filled with bibliographic references to modern and older mainstream scholarly publications in the area of biblical studies. Doherty has even made publicly available on his website a series of very detailed reviews and discussions with Crossan, Fredriksen, Mack, Funk and others. He and others have engaged mainstream scholars in depth on several web discussion lists or boards. My blog is primarily an attempt to share with a wider lay audience the arguments and discussions found among mainstream scholarship, and I have also pointed to where there are cases to be made in support of mythicism.

I think what James McGrath really means is that mythicists do not accept the conclusions of mainstream biblical scholarship. According to McGrath, this presumably can only mean they do not know the arguments of the mainstream.

Myth #3

Mythicist arguments do not address all the available evidence

McGrath makes this misinformed claim here. He reasons that since

Non-existent individuals do not say things or do things. If even one saying of Jesus, or action by him, or something done to him such as the crucifixion, is clearly more likely to represent authentic historical information rather than something invented, then we have to posit a historical Jesus.

By the same logic we must posit the historical existence of Orpheus and God.

James fails to appreciate that mythicist arguments do indeed address all the gospel narratives about Jesus, but not from the perspective he is used to.  And because they reach different conclusions by asking different questions of the gospel narratives, James concludes they do not address the evidence at all.

But James does not mean at all what he says here. He does not claim that the existence of plausible sayings and deeds by Jesus mean we must posit the existence of Jesus. What he really argues is that the presence of such sayings and narratives are themselves all the firm evidence we need to accept the strongest probability of the existence of Jesus.

This point is addressed in my previous post, Gospels: Histories or Stories?, and in the point #4 below.

Myth #4

Mythicists are misguided when they say historicist arguments have failed to address the existence of Jesus

James argues that since historians like E. P. Sanders have gone through every possible saying and deed of Jesus, they have addressed the evidence for the historical Jesus in detail. Mythicists, he says, are ignorant when they say otherwise. (See Accusations and assumptions)

On the contrary, mythicist claims that the mainstream scholars have not examined the evidence of Jesus’ existence is far from misguided.

James fails to appreciate or understand that what historical Jesus scholars do is begin with the assumption that Jesus existed, and read that assumption into the gospels.

Not all deeds and sayings are said to be historical, but biblical scholars ask which ones are likely to have been said by the historical Jesus. They do not question whether there was indeed a historical Jesus behind the deeds and sayings, or whether the narratives might have had another origin.

When they ask how the narratives can best be explained as narratives, or how they came to be written, they think only in terms of historicity. This default assumption is never questioned.

James refers in particular to E. P. Sanders, saying that no mythicist “engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.”

But when E. P. Sanders (in Jesus and Judaism) discusses how the gospel authors wrote about the temple action of Jesus, his discussion is entirely centred around how those authors interpreted and described an event that happened in history. I have demonstrated how this particular episode is almost certainly without any historical basis at all. See Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.

My point here is to demonstrate that a historical interpretation is not only not necessary, it lacks the same extent of supporting evidence as an interpretation for a nonhistorical origin. The historical interpretation is an assumption. In this case the nonhistorical (mythicist) argument is supported by evidence from the texts and literature, while the historicist argument is based entirely on assumption and no evidence. The same applies to other cases, too, as has been demonstrated and will be again.

In the case of the baptism of Jesus, biblical scholars argue that no Christian would have made up such a story. Again the assumption is historicity, and the scholarship is directed towards explaining the gospel narrative in terms of what must have happened “in history”. It is assumed that the baptism of Jesus by John was an embarrassment to early Christians, and that they were forced to finally mention it in the gospels because it was so well known as a historical fact. There is no evidence for any of these assumptions. But these are the sorts of assumptions are not examined by mainstream biblical scholarship, at least as far as I am aware. The default assumption is that a narrative scene in the gospels must have had historical roots. (I have most recently addressed here the specific question of the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John.)

No Jew would have made up the story of a crucified Messiah, it is said, so both Jesus’ crucifixion and the history of his relationship with his earliest followers all have to be “historical”. That the possibility of the story being a metaphor or allegory that grew and crystallized over time is never considered, despite evidence in the documents for the possibility of such a development.

Myth #5

Mythicists fail to acknowledge the evidence for pre-messianic beliefs among Jews at the time of Jesus

James argues that we can be confident that no Jew would have invented a crucified messiah because “it is well documented” that there was a widespread expectation in the time of Jesus of a Davidic messiah.

He repeated this claim in his post, More Mythicist-Creationist Parallels: Messiahs . . .

I had asked James for evidence that there was an expectation among Jews of the imminent appearance of a Davidic messiah in response to his claims on a Youtube video that this historical fact forms part of the argument for believing Jesus really did exist. He has repeatedly failed to provide any such evidence, despite repeating his claim that such evidence exists. His last response to my claim that no such evidence exists can be read in his comment on my post addressing his reply, along with my response to his attempt to show me where I could read the evidence for myself.

There is no evidence for pre-messianic beliefs among Jews at the time of Jesus for anyone (not even mythicists, if any do) to acknowledge. James has repeated his claims (and my arguments) under the title Mythicist-Creationist parallels, thus implying that “mythicists” are “like creationists” for not accepting unsupported claims of biblical scholars.

Myth #6

Mythicists read later Christian theology into Paul’s letters

James has said that he takes his information about what mythicists believe from internet discussions. Apparently for this reason he has addressed my own personal arguments as part of “what mythicists argue”. (I have explained that I do not think there is any point in arguing for or against a mythical or historical Jesus. This is not the goal of a historical enquiry into Christian origins. What matters is attempting to assess what explanation for Christian origins the evidence points to. Whether there is a single historical person at the start of it, or whether a myth about such a person was a later development, will remain to be seen.)

In the context of his title, More Mythicist-Creationist Parallels: Messiahs . . ., James claimed I was reading later Christian theology into the letters of Paul.

I did point to the Philippian hymn being an example of a pre-Pauline belief that Jesus originated as a heavenly being, a divinity of some sort, who descended to become flesh for a particular act, and then to return. James disagreed with this interpretation, and accused me — and “mythicists” — of reading a fourth-century theological concept of “God” into the hymn.

I do not believe I have ever said that early Christians believed that Jesus was God or a God before he became flesh. I have always been careful to use the terminology found in mainstream literature in relation to the discussion and interpretation of the Philippian hymn. But James nonetheless uses his baseless accusation to fault me for arguing like “a creationist”.

Myth #7

Mythicists think that if literary or Old Testament passages are used to describe a person or event, then that is evidence the person or event did not exist

Much fun is had among a number of historicists who like to joke that if they describe a known person today with verses from the “Old Testament” then they can “prove”, by mythical standards of argument, that that person does not exist: it is merely an imaginary creation of bible verses. (See again More Mythicist-Creationist Parallels: Messiahs . . .)

What historicists fail to address is the mythicist argument that, in the case of Jesus, after one strips away all the images and descriptions in terms of the Jewish scriptures, there is no historical person left to see. This is not the case with known historical figures who were also described in mythical terms. Strip away the mythical associations of the Caesars and Alexander and there remains plenty of historical character to identify. In the case of Jesus, we do not see a historical character who can stand and be identified in his own right being described in mythical terms. We see only mythical and/or allegorical language used to describe him, and any significant act he is said to have done. That is the difference.

Myth #8

Mythicists have no evidence for mythicism, and are content to rely on evidence that is merely compatible with their arguments

James claims that since there is no evidence for the mythicist case, mythicist arguments are only “compatible” with the evidence: Is there Evidence for Mythicism?

I presume James McGrath makes this claim in response to various internet discussions. He may present an argument or interpretation for the historicity of Jesus, and someone else may show that the same evidence can be interpreted otherwise. I don’t think anyone (no one I know at least) has ever said that by merely proposing an alternative explanation of evidence is a sufficient argument to establish that alternative.

I have asked James several times for evidence to support assertions such as these. To date I have not seen any such evidence. So I do not know which mythicist arguments he is referring to. I personally know of no mythicist argument that stakes its claim merely as an alternative explanation of the evidence.

As for his initial claim that there is no evidence for a mythicist case, well, I guess it ain’t there if you don’t want to see it. None so blind as he who will not see and all that.

Myth #9

Mythicists insist that historicity can only be established if there is archaeological evidence or eye-witness reports

Again James McGrath has apparently taken internet exchanges with me as his basis for this claim. I know of no mythicist who argues this at all. Not even I argue it. James has rephrased my own argument to construct a nonsense straw-man. He has then claimed that this straw man is what “mythicists” (or “some mythicists”) believe.

My argument is expressed clearly on his blog site, here and here, and again in my previous post here.

James has responded that when I draw attention to arguments about historical methodology as explained in relation to biblical studies by so-called “minimalists” (Davies, Lemche, Thompson), he accuses me of upholding the methodologies of a minority position among historical studies. He is clearly unaware that the “minimalist” enterprise has been directed at bringing biblical studies up to the standards of normal historical enquiry and methods as found in nonbiblical histories. By accusing me of upholding a minority position (and therefore implying I am arguing “like a creationist”) it is James himself who is defending a methodology that is unique (as far as I am aware) to the minority historical field of biblical studies.

Myth #10

Mythicists are inconsistent in accepting the historicity of John the Baptist

Again, in his post Mythicism and John the Baptist, James does not demonstrate any awareness of the details of mythicist arguments. It is apparently sufficient for him to see a contradiction at some superficial level for him to attack mythicists for inconsistency. Not only does he berate their inconsistency, he goes one step further and imputes negative psychological motives to mythicists.

According to James, the fact that mythicists argue that two references in Josephus are interpolations, but that the reference to John the Baptist is not an interpolation, demonstrates inconsistency. James appears to be suggesting that the interpolation arguments are groundless. He has not, as far as I am aware, addressed (or even read) the evidence. (I have discussed these issues — addressing mainstream scholarly arguments — several times on this blog. See my Josephus archive. But far more extensive and thorough is Doherty’s discussion.)

Of particular note to James is that if the mythicists accept the historicity of John the Baptist, then they are accepting historicity on the basis of testimony that is not eyewitness testimony, or testimony in some way “connected with a named or known first-hand source.”

In this James demonstrates, again, that he is unaware of why some mythicists do accept the historicity of John the Baptist. He is also unaware of the nature of scholarly discussions about the nature of historical evidence and how scholars decide to assess the nature and value of historical sources. (That is, with the exception of how biblical scholars discuss such matters.)

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5 thoughts on “Ten myths about mythicist arguments, as advanced by James McGrath”


    by Dave MacPherson

    The word “secrecy” when applied to Christ’s return can refer to two different things: time and visibility. Before 1830 the only coming Christians looked for was the “every eye shall see him” second advent to earth – secret only in point of time.
    Enter Margaret Macdonald in 1830. She saw “the one taken and the other left” before “THE WICKED” [Antichrist] will “be revealed” – and added that her pretrib rapture would not be “seen by the natural eye” but only by “those who have the light of God within.” Her rapture was doubly secret: at an unknown day and hour and also invisible to “outsiders.”
    Desperate to eliminate Margaret as the pretrib originator and the Irvingites as the first public teachers of pretrib, Darby defender Thomas Ice foolishly claims that they taught a secret POSTTRIB coming even though he knows that when Hal Lindsey teaches “one taken” etc. before the Antichrist “is revealed” Lindsey is expressing the kernel of the pretrib view – what MM and the Irvingites clearly taught before Darby did! Google “X-Raying Margaret” and “Edward Irving is Unnerving” to see why they are properly labeled “pretrib.”)
    As early as June 1832, Irving’s journal taught that only “to those who are watching and praying…will Christ be manifested…as the morning star. To the rest of the church, and to the world, this first appearance will be…unintelligible.” (“Present State of Prophetic Knowledge” etc., p. 374)
    Always trailing and “borrowing” quietly from the Irvingites who in turn had “borrowed” from Margaret, Darby in 1845 finally sounded like them when he wrote that “the bright and morning Star…is the sweet and blessed sign to them that watch…And such is Christ before He appears [at the final advent to earth]. The Sun will arise on the world….The star is before the [Sun], the joy of those who watch. The unwakeful world, who sleep in the night, see it not.” (“Thoughts on the Apocalypse,” p. 167)
    And Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth,” p. 143, says that “the second coming is said to be visible to the whole earth (Revelation 1:7). However, in the Rapture. only the Christians see Him – it’s a mystery, a secret.”
    My bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” (available at online stores including Armageddon Books) has 300 pages of such documentation and proves that Margaret was the first to “see” a secret, pretrib rapture, that the Irvingites soon echoed her in their journal (which Darby admitted he avidly read), and that Darby was last on all of the crucial aspects of dispensationalism.
    Shockingly, all of the earliest pretrib development rested solely on unclear OT and NT types and symbols and NOT on clear Biblical statements. Margaret’s rapture was inspired by Rev. 11’s “two witnesses.” And her “secret visibility” rested on the “types” of Stephen, Paul, and John – all of whom saw or heard what others couldn’t see or hear.
    For 30 years Darby’s pretrib basis was the rapture of Rev. 12’s “man child” – actually his plagiarism of Irving’s usage of this “pretrib” symbol eight years earlier!
    As I said at the start, the “second advent to earth” is secret in point of time with its unknown “day and hour,” as Christ stated. Pretribs assert that if Christ returns for the church after the tribulation, we could count down the days and figure out the actual date of His return – which would contradict Christ’s words.
    But pretribs deliberately ignore the fact that Christ said that the tribulation days will be shortened – and He didn’t reveal the length of the shortening!
    Our opponents also assume that the “watch” verses prove the “any-moment imminence” of Christ’s return. But do they? II Peter 3:12 says we are to be “looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God” which all premills claim is at least 1000 years ahead of us and therefore hardly “imminent”! What’s the difference between “watching for” and “looking for”?
    You have just learned a few of the many secrets that the Secret Rapture Gang has hidden for a long time. Evidently they have forgotten Luke 12:2’s warning that “there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed”!
    PS – For the ultimate in uncovered secrets, see engines like Google and type in “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.”

    (Above web message observed not long ago. Interesting? Beatrice)

  2. Wells is now an historicist whilst Carrier is now a mythicist.
    Anyway, the problem is with those who find far-fetched parallels with pagan gods. Yes, there is some parrallelism, but enough distinctions also. Anyway, they all the same milieu of superstition, so the parallels don’t
    . mean borrowing. And there are even the silly Zodiac matters.
    My problem is that find ,with the deist ,Miklos Jako in ” Confronting Believers ” that a scam of the ages is to find eshua a nice man when he was just another cult leader and preached silly and dangerous notions.

  3. The McWrath of Con

    McGrath still does not understand that criteria that do not involve the Source issue, such as the criteria of embarrassment, do not involve the source issue. There is no avoiding that there are only 3 primary criteria for historicity:

    1) Source

    2) Source

    3) Source

    A non-source criteria can only help weigh a source. It can not be a replacement for a source. What good is the criterion of embarrassment if it is from an embarrassing source?

    Also, McGrath’s claim of methodology for HJ, add up the likely authentic acts and words, is proof-texting. This ignores/denies the evidence for MJ. You also have to consider the relationship of “likely authentic” to likely fictional stories. If the relationship is one sided (like “Mark”) this puts general pressure on the supposed few “likely authentic”. You also need to factor in The Wallack Discount for orthodox Christianity which preserved the evidence and assumed HJ.

    Another flaw (fatal) of McGrath here is why only have criteria for HJ? This assumes the conclusion. You also need criteria for MJ.

    An interesting observation here and another problem for HJ, is if McGrath ever does use proper criteria here he will notice that the original Gospel “Mark”, as a source, shows more evidence of MJ, due to its sources of the Jewish Bible, Paul, Josephus and imagination, and the subsequent Gospels show less evidence of MJ as their FORM is more HJ, yet the MJ “Mark” is the source for the HJ not named “Mark”. Deal with it Khan.


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