Even an atheist finds an historical Jesus in his own image

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by Neil Godfrey

The shallow and contradictory foundations for “scholarly” assumptions and beliefs in “the historical Jesus”, by both Christian and atheist scholars, are brought out in this recent remark forwarded to me by someone who found it on Exploring Our Matrix:

I think this is my #1 reason for not being a mythicist. I consider it appropriate to create and/or adopt a theory that fits the evidence, rather than vice versa, whenever possible and to the greatest extent possible. This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory, when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

The first sentence is a truism. It is a motherhood statement that any and everyone will claim they believe and follow. So we can move on to the next point:

This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) . . . .

I demonstrated (Creationist slurs) how Associate Professor of Religion, James McGrath, posits his own idiosyncratic self-serving definitions of “creationism”. His new point of comparison is that mythicism is like creationism because both have “many permutations and varieties”. I am not sure if he is serious or joking or having a late night.

One can count as many as 4 mythical Jesus varieties to 20 historical Jesus permutations on this eight year old page alone: Historical Jesus Theories.

Accusing the majority of historians of being the minority

It is also interesting that in the same passage James takes the chance to include his own area of biblical studies under the general class of “history” — as if the historical tools and methodologies of Jesus scholars are in any way comparable to the tools and methodologies found among what is usually thought of as History in academia. When I have pointed out to him that “minimalists” who have finally had some measure of success in bringing the study of the biblical kingdom of Israel up to the same standard of normal historical analysis and enquiry found in historical studies generally, his reply has been to suggest that it is their methodology as the minority one!!!! (See here where James writes: “I’m willing to listen if you want to explain why the minimalist historians working on ancient Israel should be the standard for the entire discipline of history.” In fact the so-called “minimalists” are actually arguing that secondary evidence should be interpreted through the lens of primary evidence and avoid all pre-suppositions about the historicity or otherwise of the secondary evidence.)

Finding the “Historical Jesus” who fits our own image

I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory . . . .

This is another somewhat unscholarly claim. James knows Albert Schweitzer’s famous remark that each historical Jesus scholar has tended to find in the evidence a Jesus who turns out to be the very image of the scholar! And it has been no different since then.

  • The Irish Catholic John Dominic Crossan found a Jesus who was an anti-imperialist revolutionary.
  • Rabbi Hyam Maccoby finds a Jesus who was a rabbi.
  • There is even the “mystical” John Shelby Spong’s Jesus who is not to be found in flesh, but who is yet historical but can only be found in some mystical experience.
  • And more recently existentialist philosopher John Carroll’s existentialist Jesus.

And a recent commenter on this page in Exploring Our Matrix was popular atheist and Christian debunker, ex-evangelical preacher John W. Loftus himself, coming out and arguing for his own historical Jesus. He has argued the same again here.

Guess what John’s historical Jesus looks like . . . .

  • It’s a cultic charismatic Jesus who was a failed apocalyptic preacher.

John Loftus has also argued elsewhere (on FRDB) that his particular historical Jesus is the one that attracts his audiences and that his motive is to change “the religious landscape”. So we can be have some justification for thinking that John’s particular type of historical Jesus is no accident or disinterested outcome of objective research.

So from Christian Schweitzer to Christian debunking atheist Loftus, one can see the evidence for the “deliberate reinterpretation of the evidence to fit already adopted historical Jesus theories”.

Blinded by our cultural icons

. . . . when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

Our deep seated cultural heritage makes it impossible for some of us to see just how nonstraightforward and unpersuasive the gospel narratives are as attempts to write real history. The fact is (as I have been discussing recently) that leading historical Jesus scholars such as E. P. Sanders assume from start to finish the historicity of Jesus, and never go further than discussing plot details to decide which bits are more plausible than others (e.g. Jesus going to a synagogue is more plausible than him walking on water) and work with nothing more than the self-serving and contradictory “tools” of “criteria of authenticity”. (See my comment and reply by Steven Carr here on the contradictory and self-serving nature of these tools.)

I wonder if the tendency to see the historical Jesus who supports our own place and identity within our wider culture should be seen as instructive about the real significance of the the hostility of many biblical scholars against “Jesus mythicism”.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Even an atheist finds an historical Jesus in his own image”

  1. I found it interesting how often the historicists’ arguments echoed standard apologetic incantations, e.g., Loftus’ assertion that Mark’s readers would have been too smart to accept his story if it were completely invented, McGrath’s assertion that there is something inherently superior about working with the “evidence we have,” i.e., the stories as written, rather than forming hypotheses about what else might have happened, and Antonio’s invocation of the martyrdom of early Christians as proof of something or other.

    I do not wish, however, to speculate on anyone’s psychological motivation.

    1. Glad you commented on this, since it is something I have also noticed and wondered about.

      Another of several examples of it is the default assumption (rationalized by circular argument) that Josephus wrote something about Jesus — when the more critical view is now largely relegated to pre-World War 2 history.

      I do wonder if this is related to the general shift in openness to Jewish inputs into Christian history since the Holocaust (compare also the rehabilitation of Judas and emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus).

      James Crossley has had the courage to link it to the shift in public and political attitudes in favour of Israel since 1967.

      Is it too much an exaggeration to also link it to Schweitzer’s admission that there is no non-Christian source worthy of credit supporting the biblical narrative? Is there a need to find at least one first century nonChristian anchor for the whole historical study?

      We have seen a real shift to conservatism and the Right generally for some time now. It would be nice to think that the current trend is due to wear itself out and we can find a return to a more honestly critical time soon.

    2. I have just heard that the Richard Dawkins website Forum is being replaced by a more organized area for critical discussions. The old Forum was, from my limited and recent experience, total chaos. Moderators would threaten members if they complained about verbal abuse, while warmly welcoming those flinging about the abuse and crudities for their presence and comments. It was a blight on rational discourse, from my short experience with it, and I’m glad it’s gone. I suspect Richard Dawkins himself would have been ashamed of much of what went on there. (Okay, not everyone will agree with me — and I admit my experience with it was brief. Maybe there was a lot of good done in many of the subject areas I was not involved with.)

      But the reason I am mentioning this here is because several atheist posters there argued vehemently for the historical Jesus and quoted apologists — even J. P. Holding! — a number of times in support of their claims.

      One of them made his reasons very clear. He was personally embarrassed to be associated with anyone who gave credence to the idea of a mythical Jesus. He associated such views with flat-earthers and alien abductees. He was confident that his reputation as an atheist could only be maintained if he was seen to side with the conclusions of apologists and mainstream biblical scholars. He had no idea of the shortcomings of their methodologies, and would fend off any criticisms against their scholarship. His true intellectual standards were exposed when I caught him out actually doctoring a quotation from Richard Carrier — deleting one word and recombining sentences that had originally not been connected — to present what appeared to be a direct quotation from him but that was in fact a deliberate slandering lie.

      But my experience with his ilk drove home the power of cultural and community pressure to be seen to be thinking and speaking what is the “correct and socially approved” line.

      1. Neil,

        I would be very skeptical that anyone quoting JP Holding really is an atheist. My bet is that it is a Christian who is convinced that the only reason anyone rejects Holding’s brilliant arguments is anti-Christian bias and figures that by posing as an atheist he will overcome that prejudice.

      2. Yeh. It was a bad experience, that site. Too many “rationalists” there were so confident that anything that supported the mainstream line was kosher, but they were also so ignorant that they could not even tell the wheat from the chaff.

        I see Richard Dawkins has posted his own criticisms of that forum, and the responses he has been getting from some of those responsible for its abysmal tone seem to confirm my experiences.

        ….forum.richarddawkins.net/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=110356 [Link no longer active, 18th August, 2015 — Neil]

  2. Are there any good articles or books that contrast mainstream historical study with what usually passes for historical study on the historical Jesus? And perhaps articles or books that discuss the slow surrender of ancient Israel studies to mainstream methods?

  3. I don’t know of any dealing with the comparison in a comprehensive way. But I have a few books to catch up with (e.g. Hector Avalos, “The End of Biblical Studies”.)

    Most of my information comes from:

    Keith Whitelam’s “The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History” (surveys the scholarship’s treatment of OT history);

    Philip R. Davies “In Search of Ancient Israel” (the publication that I understand got the whole “minimalist” thing rolling);

    Niels Peter Lemche’s “Israel in History and Tradition”

    articles discussing Dever’s gradual shift since/despite his exchanges with Thompson;

    and just reading NT scholarship itself and having to rub my eyes and re-read before I can accept what I am really reading — and comparing with the many historical works I have read of ancient, medieval and modern historical subjects. They’re on different planets.

    (I once came across a “scholarly journal” in JSTOR for “religious conservatives” which included articles by “scholars” seriously applying all their “tools” of multiple attestation, embarrassment, dissimilarity” etc to “prove” the historicity of the Bible’s miracles!)

  4. The self-serving nature of these ‘criterion of embarrassment’ and ‘criterion of multiple attestation’ is shown by how mainstream scholars like JP Meier make much of the Gospel of John removing from history all ideas of John the Baptist being called ‘the Baptist’.

    Cue talk of much embarrassment, proving that Jesus must have been baptised by John the Baptist.

    But when Luke/Acts removes from history all idea of Jesus having a brother called James, let alone that a brother of Jesus became a church leader, this is dismissed as an ‘argument from silence’ and no discussion is allowed of why anybody would do such a thing, and whether it casts doubt on James the church leader having been a brother of Jesus.

  5. I was looking recently at the Hindu narratives of Rama. They have much more realistic historical detail (such detail only eyewitnesses could have been responsible for it) — all the names of family members, places of birth, dates of births and marriages. And even embarrassing information like Rama being exiled for 14 years by his own father! So embarrassing it is clearly historical! And I would dismiss any similarities with the Jesus Christ story as a mad attempt at parallelomania.

    As for arguments from silence, I also like the way James and others argue that silence is obligatory in the case of the resurrection of Jesus. They are not allowed to talk about that, he says, because it is “not a natural event”. So they only talk about the crucifixion. But once they silence the resurrection half of the story, they can then “legitimately” ask why any Jew would have made up a story about a messiah being crucified, thus “proving” its historicity.

    But of course they are only left with that question in the first place because they silenced the resurrection side of the story, which just happens to make the story the greatest event in the history of the world and leaves no room for any questions about historicity! :-/

  6. This self-imposed silence about the resurrection is very true.

    And McGrath then demands that mythicists explain the origin of Christianity, while announcing that historians cannot talk about resurrections.

    So any mythicist explanation will automatically be rejected by him.

    Even if we point to Luke 24 where the Lord and Saviour himself tells Christians that they were right to find the story of the crucified *and resurrected* Messiah in Scripture….

    ‘Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’

  7. It’s interesting to point out that Prof. McGrath thinks that “minimalists” are somehow not doing history, and then compares Jesus mythers to Creationists. Would the historical methodology used by minimalists completely undermine multiple sciences? Creationists don’t just attack biology – because of their claims, they inadvertently attack geology, astrophysics, paleontology, and to a lesser extent sociology and psychology.

    Does the methodology behind Jesus mythicism undermine multiple sciences independent, yet complimentary sciences?

  8. It might be interesting to go through James’s list of comparisons and see how many also apply to minimalists.

    The obsessive irrationality of his little exercise was spotlighted when we saw the fact that there are “varieties” of mythical views was enough to draw out his creationist slur.

    I am sometimes tempted to do a little comparison between mainstream biblical studies and creationism a la JM’s definition of creationism. (I hinted at a few similarities in my Creationist slur post, but left it at that.)

    When James responded to my point about the “minimalists”, he played his hand then. He is not interested in disinterested questions of historical methodology. Only in defending the faith, however liberal he thinks his might be. Ditto for his colleague John Hobbins who chimed in here on his behalf. In his (McGrath’s) book on the burial of Jesus he makes it very plain his audience is the flock, and his theme is buttressing its spiritual edification.

    So many biblical scholars I have communicated with seem to be churchmen in some sense, and they sooner or later show their colours and put a spiritual message in their communication, maybe even challenge one to conversion; some are atheistic jerks; and a few are really interesting to talk to, but they are mostly extending their interests into the classics or some other nonbiblical field. But I try not to risk the contact by raising anything controversial with them, just in case. 🙂

    Maybe it’s too easy on the internet to treat some biblical scholars as real scholars, taking them too seriously just because their own guild highly recognizes them.

    But they are “public intellectuals” nonetheless. And they are accountable as such to their publics, and need to be called to account when their defence of their own positions really fails and betrays the wider society.

    1. I am sometimes tempted to do a little comparison between mainstream biblical studies and creationism a la JM’s definition of creationism.

      If you want. It might seem a bit too much like petty sniping, and I’m not sure that mainstream biblical studies is all that comparable with creationism any more than the idea of mythicism is. I find the salient attribute of creationism that marks it as a pseudo-intellectual pursuit is that it insists on rejecting empirical evidence that contradicts established belief rather than revising the belief to comport with the empirical evidence. While there are both historicists and mythicists who fall into this trap, there’s nothing particular about the historicist or mythicist position that requires it to be the case. (Though I do think that there is something particular to the Christian believer that makes it important that Jesus be a real, historical figure rather than a mythical being who was later historicized – I think that’s subtly different though. That’s a reason to presume the use of a historicist methodology, not really a damnation of the methodology itself).

      This is mostly because there seems to be a lack of strong evidence to make either case particularly certain in the way that evidence from modern biology provides evidence that makes creationist ideas laughable. If mythicism were comparable to creationism, then McGrath could have stepped up to your challenge and provided something along the lines of what biologists have done with pandasthumb.org, where creationist claims are reviewed and then evidence is provided to explain why they’re wrong, or misleading, or outright lying. To my knowledge no one has even done that with Earl Doherty’s book – his points get ignored instead of tackled head on.

      I think this quote from Richard Carrier’s review of Doherty’s book sums it up best for me:

      In other words, Doherty’s theory is simply superior in almost every way in dealing with all the facts as we have them. However, it is not overwhelmingly superior, and that leaves a lot of uncertainty. For all his efforts, Jesus might have existed after all. But until a better historicist theory is advanced, I have to conclude it is at least somewhat more probable that Jesus didn’t exist than that he did. I say this even despite myself, as I have long been an opponent of ahistoricity.

      However, I think the fault is more with historicists who have stubbornly failed to develop a good theory of historicity. By simply resting on the feeble laurels of prima facie plausibility (“Jesus existed because everyone said so”) and subjective notions of absurdity (“I can’t believe Jesus didn’t exist!”), the existence of Jesus has largely been taken for granted, even by competent historians who explicitly try to argue for it. The evidence is selectively mined for confirming evidence, and all challenging evidence is ignored, especially when it is weird.

      (This is where I’m currently sitting in the debate, actually – I’m agnostic to the historical existence of Jesus precisely because I don’t think anyone on the historicist side has taken the question seriously enough to present a good case for it.)

      Now, what I might like to see is a good comparison of “the way historians of non-biblical history do things” versus “the way biblical studies historians do things”. It would be useful to me at least.

    2. On a similar note, it’s been a while since I first read that essay by Carrier and it’s nice to have some things underscored. His entire section titled A Note on the Peculiar Context seems like a good primer on some of the reasons why we can say with some certainty that Julius Caesar existed but why we’re on incredibly shaky ground when asserting things about early Christianity due to who was preserving the documents and the agendas they were serving and the ideological nature of the “facts” that they have handed down to us.

      1. Agreed. James gave his game away when he made his silly claims about “minimalists”. He somehow seems to really think that we have as much evidence for David and Jesus (and even Socrates) as we do for Julius Caesar (and Socrates). His irrational responses seem to be cover for the quicksand foundations of historical Jesus studies.

  9. Any of you guys remember the old Green Lantern counsel that seemed to sit so high and mighty? I get the impression that real science would also be ignored in this post but I will give it a try anyway. Would extant quotes from historians, even if they be church historians be valid? Would archeological finds be valid even if the ones that publicized them also made unsubstantiated claims? Would the fact that the Torah portions found at Qumran nearly match what Torah observant Jews today make any difference. If you put even these extant evidences together, and there is much more examples, from sources that are from different camps, you can come up with a logic that any computer will validate. There was a historical man named Yehoshua, a Ribi, not rabbi. There was a myth generated upon this man’s name that has destroyed countless lives throughout the past Jzeus. But if anyone here has a desire to live by the truth and know there is objective evidence for knowing the eternal truth Netzarim

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