What do (Jesus) Mythicists believe?

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by Neil Godfrey

Statue of William Tell and his son in Altdorf,...
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James McGrath has asked me to explain what it is that mythicists do believe. Here is the answer from the best I have been able to ascertain:

They believe William Tell was not a real historical person, but a legendary or fictional creation of some sort.

What do historicists believe about William Tell?

Now, let me ask what “historicists” believe. I would expect them to say something like, “We historicists believe William Tell, whom our historian Karl Meyer can connect with known places and events, and whom Schärer can even identify personally, was a real historical character, and not at all a fictional creation.”

I suspect someone like a Garth McJames would not be satisfied with the mythicists’ answer, and he would refuse to relinquish historicity until mythicists could clearly demonstrate who made up the story and all the details about how they did it and exactly when and where.

Unless William Tell mythicists can come up with a detailed model of how the myth developed, the Garth McJames’s will feel they can safely ignore them.

All the evidence in the William Tell story for borrowing from Nordic legends would be dismissed as parallelomania and irrelevant when it came to the question of historicity. “I mean, I even have a Nordic name! Therefore I’m a myth,” they would chuckle. The silence of the record, the absence of evidence for the earliest supposed carriers of the tradition would be rationalized. The humiliation of Tell’s imprisonment would be declared as sure evidence of the historicity by virtue of the authenticating tool of the “criterion of embarrassment”.

What do mythicists believe about Rama?

Rama and Sita in the Forest, Punjab style, 1780.
Image via Wikipedia

The mythicist has reasons to believe Rama was a mythical being, although she cannot explain how the myth arose, who was responsible for it, or why it came into being.

The historicist (Hindu fundamentalist), on the other hand, knows Rama was historical, can point to his birth-place, show the site of a temple there, list the names of his immediate and extended family relatives, cite his many heroic deeds, describe the colour of his skin, his size, and even tell you the exact day and year he was born, and again the date of his marriage. They can also use the criterion of embarrassment to prove the historicity of Rama’s 14-year exile by his father. Parallels with the Jesus Christ story can be dismissed as irrelevant coincidences.

The Hindu historicist may well demand of the Rama mythicist a full accounting of exactly by whom and how the “supposed myth” emerged before he can be expected to take the claim that all this abundance of historical detail is myth.

A pre-Darwinian mythicist challenges the historical God of the Bible

But James has said he thinks analogies with the physical sciences, particularly those related to evolution, are more instructive. Okay, so let’s try that analogy for size.

A pre-Darwinian mythicist does not believe the historical Genesis account that all life began with a historical God. Let’s call this mythicist “Gomy”. Gomy declares that the God-in-History did not touch earth, walk around in the Garden with Adam, or create all life forms 6000 years ago. Gomy rather thinks that this idea of God-in-History somehow evolved like the life-forms around us. This pre-Darwinian who thinks God is a myth does not understand how that God idea originated, or how life could have begun without a God-in-History, but is convinced that the evidence of remarkably similar phalanges across species, and that other cruel events are enough to convince him God is a myth, too.

The historicist retorts that this mythicist is talking nonsense, and that the evidence really points to a designer, a real God in real historical time and place, who created everything with his own word of mouth. Until the God-in-History-hating-mythicist can produce a complete explanation of how this God idea emerged, and how evolution occurred, as complete as anything found in Genesis 1 and 2, then he can be dismissed as an ignorant crank.

True story: mythical or historical Atlantis?

One more: I have a friend who believes in the historicity of Atlantis. She can point to the historical records of how the tradition was preserved and handed down faithfully through the centuries by the most reputable statesmen and philosophers of the times. She can point to the vivid detail of the early narratives and confidently declare such detail could only be explained as originating from real eye-witness testimony.

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She dismisses my views to the contrary as overly sceptical mythicism. The reason my friend and I have different interpretations of the same evidence is because: (i) I have found reasons to think that the documents containing the “tradition” show signs of narrating something other than real history; (ii) while my friend, on the other hand, accepts the documents at face value (as attempts at recording history) with a few “rationalist” modifications, and dismisses my scepticism as something akin to nihilism.

So what do mythicists believe?

They believe there is an alternative to the literal historicist explanation that somehow makes more sense, even if they cannot explain in detail how the nonhistorical alternative emerged.

Hell, if there were a clear discernible trail to the origin of the myth demonstrating how it started, it would hardly survive as a history at all!  But this does not mean that the mythicist belief is circular. The “mythicist” has arrived at her conviction (maybe a tentative acceptance) as a result of the failure of historical explanations to present the sorts of evidence normally associated with clearly historical characters, along with those indicators in the record one normally associates with fictional creation. Mythicists do not accept that the narrative is evidence of its own historical origins. They do not think “tools of authenticity” when applied to plot analysis can validly establish historicity. Historicity of a narrative’s contents can only be established by some form of evidence external to the narrative itself.

“Mythicists” may have a range of alternative possible explanations, and some will be convinced of one more than another.

It does not take detailed working out of how a mythical William Tell emerged to convince someone William Tell is not historical. It is enough to look at the positive evidence that strongly suggests this. The fact that some powerful interests have a vested interest in protecting the historical status of William Tell is beside the point.  There are staunch Swiss nationalists who absolutely reject “mythicist” talk as rot and nonsense. They accuse “William Tell mythicists” of undermining the spirit of national pride and unity and of being guilty of tendentious scholarship.

The real historical question

I do not need to be able to explain how and why beliefs in the heroic tales of Aeneas or Romulus arose in order to have excellent reasons for believing they were mythical creations. Of course I would really be fascinated to understand their origins. If we had the available evidence, I am sure it would make an absorbing study. But we would be surprised if someone today insisted that we explain exactly how belief in these nonhistorical characters arose before we will accept that they are mythical.

Conversely, one does not need to know or understand anything about Alexander the Great to know, on the basis of inscriptions and coins, that he was historical. It would be pointless to insist on a full understanding of his life and deeds before we accepted he was historical.

But historical enquiry is not about questions like “Did Aeneas or Alexander or Mr and Mrs Socrates really exist?” It is a process of attempting to understand the past, to explain it. It works with the evidence in this endeavour. It does not use the evidence (or it should not) to merely explain in various ways “the party line”. That is confusing history with propaganda, and turning history into an exercise of competing claims for the most plausible propaganda model.

The real historical question as I see it is, How to explain Christian origins?

Perhaps the reason for this misunderstanding, and for the demand that an explanation for how myth X arose before one accepts that X could actually be a myth, is a carryover from the biblical historian confusing one particular model or interpretation of Christian origins with the nature of history itself when applied to Jesus. The bulk of the historical models of Christian origins thus far, that I am aware of, are variations of the gospel narrative. When E. P. Sanders or Robert Funk list what they are convinced are the bedrock facts of the life of Jesus, they are in fact isolating those narrative components that they consider are essential to the gospel plot. They always begin with the baptism of Jesus by John and end with some life-changing impact of the crucifixion’s aftermath on the disciples. In other words, history for them is essentially equated with a paraphrase and rationalization of the gospel narrative.

So when confronted with the question of an alternative paradigm to explain that narrative, they naturally ask for a comparable storyline or model to replace their solitary historical one.

But it is a mistake (or should be) to confuse “historical” with any particular historical explanation, and it is the same (or should be) with the mythical view of Jesus.

History is not about explaining a “mythicism” or “historicism” view. There ought never to be a single defined “historicist” view as opposed to a “mythicist” view. It is about making the best sense of the evidence, and all paradigms should be allowed to contribute their part and be honestly tested.

There are a number of explanations for the Jesus myth, and there are many more explanations for the historical Jesus. We are entitled to find none of the historical explanations decisively satisfactory as an explanation of all the evidence. But that fact by itself by no means implies that the historical paradigm itself should be jettisoned. It simply means more work needs to be done in the historical enquiry. It is no different with the mythical enquiry.

The cultural matrix nurtures the conflict

But cultural baggage tends to hijack the historical enquiry. The question of the existence of Jesus can never be as neutral and innocent as the question of the existence of Mr and Mrs Socrates.

To study the origin of philosophy one can happily place Socrates in a small paragraph or not. The movement he represents is what is really important.

But biblical studies is still dominated, it appears to me, by the religious faithful who use history to edify their readers in more nuanced ways of understanding their faith. James McGrath is one example. His book on the burial of Jesus is directed at those readers who are dealing with critical challenges to their faith that has yet to find a higher level of sophistication. John Shelby Spong and N. T. Wright write about the historical Jesus for the edification of believers and those more sceptical of the faith. One regularly sees similar addresses in the final chapters or introductory remarks of John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk and, to go back a little, Albert Schweitzer.

Obviously not all scholars of the historical Jesus are Christians. But they are all part of a culture that is to a significant extent defined by its iconic Jesus figure.

This is why it is so easy to accept a mere paraphrase of the iconic narrative, usually with an added touch of scholarly rationalization and “plot analysis” with “tools of authenticity”, as “the most straightforward and uncomplicated explanation of all the evidence.” Cultural blinkers can too easily shelter us from the baseless assumptions, the inconsistencies, the illogical ‘double-binds’ in our thinking, that we can identify so easily when it comes to the “culturally appropriate and correct” subjects of analysis.

The same cultural blinkers that enabled “Old Testament” scholarship for so many decades to merely paraphrase (with a few scholarly variations) the biblical story of Israel are still firmly fixed in place among “New Testament” Jesus scholarship, generally speaking, today. Observe how biblical scholars such as James McGrath can publicly express their conviction, without any sense of irony, that the methods and tools they ply to Jesus studies are standard and used in the same ways (to establish the very model’s bedrock evidence) throughout all mainstream history disciplines. At most they will concede that biblical scholars “define” or describe these “common tools” differently.

The academic departments that have claimed the intellectual authority over one of our culture’s central icons also claim, without even seeming to realize it, an exceptionalism in methodology. Without this exceptionalism I suspect they could not exist as independent areas of historical studies.

And so the vested interests and the more culturally defined egos on both sides take up arms. Insults fly. Inconsistencies and irrationalities are wielded for defence. There are dismal publications issued from both sides. And nothing seems to have changed much about the nature of the debate in the last 100 years. I suggest that this ‘status quo’ is a reflection of the wider balance of competing interests and dominant ethos (despite some tidal to-ing and fro-ing) in Western society throughout this time.

Biblical studies is embedded in the wider cultural and personal significance of the biblical Jesus story. To question Jesus’ historicity is more than an academic question, and the hostile, anti-intellectual responses so often aroused by questioning his historicity are testimonies to this fact.

P.S. Just “like a creationist”?

James McGrath has taken advantage of his status as a public intellectual to foster public prejudice and ignorance against those who challenge the assumptions, logical fallacies and circular methods of a minority branch of academia that is an institutional hangover from the dark ages.

He will no doubt not be satisfied by my answer above. Some creationists demand to see the missing link before they will accept evolution. When shown a missing link, they then complain that there are now two missing links to be accounted for.

James has complained that those who argue for a mythical Jesus have no alternative hypothesis to explain the evidence. He has also complained that they, “like creationists”, have too many competing hypotheses. He says that he is not personally convinced by any of their hypotheses, and that his own historical model explains the evidence better. Instead of opting to argue his case in a reasoned and intellectually honest manner, he selects straw-men comments from internet exchanges and responds with insult and slurs. He says he thinks a lot about “mythicism” but also says he has not read any of their publications.

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Neil Godfrey

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56 thoughts on “What do (Jesus) Mythicists believe?”

  1. I consider myself a mythicist to the limited extent that the arguments for a mythic Jesus seem less ad hoc and more consistent with evidence than those for historicity but I’m also not entirely satisfied with that explanation of belief 🙂

    It is hard, as you say. There are several different explanations and since several are freely available with extensive documentation and elaboration yet McGrath has not bothered to read them, it must hardly seem worthwhile to duplicate the effort and have the same result. Still, I get the feeling from this post that mythicism is based on being unconvinced by historicist arguments which doesn’t reflect my understanding of the argument, but definitely reflects the strawmen that I see from historicists. You address it a little towards the bottom but it still seems lacking. I know it would be a bother but if you’re doing any more posts in this long and interesting series, would you please consider making a few notes on the subject of what mythicists use as evidence and whether they have a positive (evidence-based) vs negative (not enough evidence) case?

    Thanks & enjoying the discussion.

  2. Hi Tyro,

    As you suggest here, I think it is the nature of blogging to post thought by thought, bit by bit. To attempt a comprehensive discussion would mean writing a book. This post is very much a “situational” one — addressing one specific point of misunderstanding that seems to be the basis of some complains by proponents of a “historical Jesus”.

    Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself cornered in a way I never wanted. I cannot speak for proponents of a mythical Jesus. I’ve always tried to avoid appearing to “argue for a mythical Jesus” as such, preferring/trying instead to address head-on the evidence I find significant for studying Christian origins, and the good and bad ways of analyzing that evidence, and allowing the results to take care of themselves. As for details, Doherty and Wells can stand on their own and do take care of themselves. I cannot speak for them. I can only share my own take on things.

    I have begun a few series of posts that need follow up for fuller explanations. I will try to get to those bit by bit as time permits. (I’m still wanting to finish other series I began over two years ago! Trying to catch up on too much at once.)

    Thanks for the comment. I’m surprised how much interest this seems to be generating.

  3. Wells, being a mythicist, changed his mind when he was persuaded of the existence of Q by mainstream Biblical scholars.

    That’s the trouble with mythicists. They are so open-minded that evidence persuades them.

    It is almost as though mythicism was an approach to look at the texts and examine them as an historian would , rather than answering the question of what life of Jesus seems most plausible or credible in the mind of the scholar writing his book.

    If one historicists finds one life of Jesus not credible, he will examine the Bible and come up with a life of Jesus that seems more credible to him.

    So far , there are 17 or more life of Jesus’s that seemed most credible to one or more Jesus-scholars.

    Wells changed his mind when persuaded of the existence of Q and Q communities.

    Of course, the existence of Q is now under heavy fire. Mainstream Biblical scholarship cannot decide upon questions of existence….

    ‘They always begin with the baptism of Jesus by John and end with some life-changing impact of the crucifixion’s aftermath on the disciples.’

    Rather amusingly, JP Meier cites as evidence for the baptism of Jesus by John the fact that one Gospel is silent about it happening, and never says anybody was called ‘the Baptist’.

    If only we could unearth more Gospels where events in the life of Jesus are not mentioned, we would then have even more convincing proof that they must have happened….

  4. Thanks for these great posts Neil. I admire the way you have conducted yourself given the series of posts by associate professor Garth McJames. He writes that the interaction was becoming repetitive. Well yes, all we hear from him are “you’re just like creationists, blablabla…….., mainstream scholars, blablabla………. show me your positive case, blablabla.” It was really quite painful. I’m actually very pleased that you didn’t come with some speculative reconstruction of the Jesus myth. A Jesus myth case will have to be an all-encompassing paradigm that takes all the data into consideration. I’m not quite sure how a Jesus mythicist would go about publishing his case in a peer-reviewed journal. To make a mythicist case requires much more space than is permitted in a biblical journal. All the mythicist can really do I think is publish his views on the internet and in books and attempt to make his case (without proclaiming mythicism) bit by bit by breaking down the historicist case. At present this seems to be impossible.

  5. Hey Neil,

    It doesn’t seem like you’ve outlined your excellent reasons for thinking the mythicist interpretation is better than a historicist interpretation. I understand why certain demands of the historicists are unreasonable, but it still seems like McGrath was asking for a positive case (in whatever form it DOES take) and not another round of clever apologies (which certainly has its place in moderation). Am I wrong? Do you have a post that goes into both aspects of this quote of yours in depth:

    “The “mythicist” has arrived at her conviction (maybe a tentative acceptance) as a result of the failure of historical explanations to present the sorts of evidence normally associated with clearly historical characters, along with those indicators in the record one normally associates with fictional creation.”

    If I were McGrath, that’s what I’d be interested in.


  6. Oh, I just read Bill’s comment above. It seems to me that if it really is impossible to get into the positive reasons then pretty much everything else you could possibly be talking about amounts to contributing to that “cultural baggage [that ] tends to hijack the historical enquiry.” If you aren’t going to talk about the crux of the matter, that’s pretty much the remainder, wouldn’t you say? We’ll just have to wait for Carrier’s book to come out, I guess.

  7. Bill,

    Yep, all the good professor ever does is read his own monomaniacal preferred meaning into every post and then reply to everything with the same put-down, so I can understand him getting tired of “hearing the same thing” and “repeating the same thing” all the time.

    McGrath and GDon asking to be shown “the mythicist case” is like (forgive me for going this route) like a creationist asking for “the missing link”. You know they are only kidding themselves when they ask for this, and that as soon as they “see it”, they will gear-shift into complaining there is now twice the lack of evidence! Whatever scenario anyone can provide will never be the final word that will put an end to all further research on the matter — as is the case with any historical scenario. It is quite natural for historical enquiry to be always ongoing, and never finally decisive.

    And the mythical explanation is just one of the conclusions an historical enquiry can lead to.

    Damn. Now I wish I made that point in the original post.

    I don’t see how a mythical Jesus explanation can be published in a scholarly journal at this time. The journals are supported by the academic institutions who are funded by the communities/churches etc. How can biblical studies departments genuinely explore the vacuity of their own foundations, or suggest the end of such a cultural icon as the Jesus narrative?

    1. McGrath and GDon asking to be shown “the mythicist case” is like (forgive me for going this route) like a creationist asking for “the missing link”. You know they are only kidding themselves when they ask for this…

      Hmmm… Well, I’ve read the positive cases of Acharya S, Freke & Gandy, Earl Doherty and others, and I’ve even argued those cases directly with Acharya, Doherty and (briefly) Freke. If there is a positive case that you feel ought to be addressed by historicists — and that was the implication you gave in your comments to McGrath — then I would love to read it, even in outline. I promise to not even comment on it, as I know you believe I misrepresent people. I would just be interested to see what it is. (If it is similar to Doherty’s, which I believe has been adequately addressed by Muller and others, then that’s fine).

      If you feel that the mythicist case is best expressed by exposing problems with the historicist case, then there is some sense in that, and good luck.

      1. Oh dear, GDon, but when I expose problems in the historicist “case” as I have done here and elsewhere many times someone blames me for “nitpicking” 🙁

        But I remember now. I did say something to James about taking apart his E. P. Sanders “case” for the mythicist Jesus. I’m surprised I haven’t heard back from him for doing just that on the first point Sanders uses “for historicity of Jesus”. I thought he would have come around to accepting the mythical Jesus by now.

    2. I don’t see any problems with assuming the historicity of Jesus, based on the available evidence. Many people in ancient times with the same scanty evidence are assumed as probably existing. Someone (I think CJ on McGrath’s blog) put it as an “unwarranted assumption”, but if it is anything it is not unwarranted. Paul appears to write about a Jesus Christ as a man who was crucified in Jerusalem in Paul’s near past. Internal evidence suggests that Paul wrote about 50 CE. The Gospel of Mark then writes about a Jesus Christ who appears to be the same person. I’ve laid it out here: ….forum.richarddawkins.net/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=108778 [Link no longer active, 19th August 2015 — Neil]

      Now, the evidence there is not a “slam dunk” by any means. I’ve always said that there is so little evidence for historicity that a well-established mythicist case could overturn it. But pointing out problems with the historicist case isn’t going to do much for me — I already know there are problems there. You’ve cited some historicists like Albert Schweitzer who has recognised that. If Paul calls Jesus a “man” who was “the seed of David”, the assumption is that Paul believes Jesus to be a historical man. Just saying “hey, that’s just an assumption!” isn’t going to get you far. It’s a damn GOOD assumption, based on available evidence. If mythicists have evidence against that, that’s great and I would like to see it. I don’t think bringing up William Tell is going to add anything to that, I’m afraid.

      1. Yes, the author of the epistles attributed to Paul provides excellent evidence for a historical Jesus. I especially like all those stories he tells about the ministry of Jesus and all his wonderful miracles. There’s also a lot of evidence in the letters that explains why Jesus was considered the messiah well before his death. I’m also glad he spends some time discussing Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom and his magnificent parables. I also love that he informs us that he has come according to the flesh. It’s clear from this passage that nobody doubted Jesus Christ, the Son of God had flesh. I’m glad Paul, who has come from the seed of Abraham according to the flesh (that’s how I usually describe Paul) provides us this information. I’m also glad he tells us that he’s from the seed of David. I guess that’s one definately historical person descended from another definately historical person. I can go on and on about Paul’s stories of Jesus, since there are so many of them and we could go on to all those other wonderful Jesus tales in all the other epistles of course. It’s exactly what this Jesus historicist would expect from early Christians talking about their master. Isn’t it great how much impact Jesus’ life has had on the authors of the epistles of Paul, James, John, Peter and Jude?

      2. So James asks us to address Sanders point by point but you ask for Paul to be addressed point by point, . . . . Sorry I keep disappointing you, GDon, I write my own agenda and the things that interest me. I’ve been through a Paul phase some time back (nature of his letters, dating of them, etc) and not in the mood for revisiting just yet (except to finish off Paul and the Stoics).

        The points you raise about Paul and Jesus are discussed in depth on FRDB and Doherty’s site and no doubt elsewhere, and you also linked to your post above. There are sites also adding their arguments against Doherty’s take in particular on those passages. Anyone interested in that side of the topic can follow that up in places like that.

      3. Bill, whatever Paul doesn’t say about Jesus, there are things that he did say. Is it wrong to read historicity into them? Perhaps. And that is where it is up to the mythicist to present their case.

        For example, saying “Paul describes Jesus as coming from the Israelites according to the flesh (Romans 9:3-5), but doesn’t name either Joseph or Mary”, may make us question how much Paul knew of those Gospel details, but it doesn’t erase that fact that Paul appears to be saying that Jesus was Jewish. Invoking William Tell doesn’t do it either. Those statements still exist, and their implications still exist. (See the link where I lay out statements from Paul that suggests that Paul thought that Jesus was someone who was crucified in Jerusalem in Paul’s recent past).

        At some point the mythicist case has to be presented to show that the assumptions of historicists are wrong. Then historicists have to reply. But without the mythicist case presented, I’m not sure what the historicist needs to respond to.

        Bill, can you briefly outline the mythicist case, please? Someone on another board said that the mythicist case is “Jesus was not historical!”, but I’d like something a little more than that! 🙂

      4. Before responding to GDon someone might like to ask him to explain in depth (or rather to show us another link where we know he has explained in depth) his reasons for disputing Doherty’s take on those verses.

        It might also be worth remembering that “historical” and “human” are not equivalent, though GDon and other “historicists” regularly confuse the two. Most mythical people have been, well, “people”.

      5. Neil, I’ll make this point one more time, and then I will trouble you no further.

        If you want to point out the problems with historicity, then that can only be to the good, and I wish you the best of luck. But if you want someone to address the mythicist case, then I’ll be darned to know how you expect them to do it without presenting the mythicist case.

        I suppose you could ask them to read this or that book, but I’m sure we are all wary of those who argue on that basis. I for one would be interested in a blog post or two with you outlining the best mythicist case (and also why you don’t call yourself a mythicist). As you say, it’s your blog, but I’m sure your other blog readers would be interested also.

        And with that, I’m done. Thanks!

      6. I’ve explained several times why I don’t call myself a “mythicist”, including in recent posts. I don’t see the point of arguing “for a mythicist case”. My interest is in examining the evidence and seeing where it leads. A mythical Jesus is one explanation of an historical enquiry that to me makes a lot of sense of the evidence. (Flesh and human have never been synonyms for “historical”.)

        I certainly don’t expect to convince anyone like yourself. I know the discussion will go on forever and ever and in circles. I don’t see the point in arguing with those who think that what they are arguing against is something as irrational as “creationism”. I would never bother arguing with a creationist. There can never be any genuine two-way exploration of the evidence between such protagonists.

        I would make available or point to arguments for them to read in their own time, when they are ready. I will no doubt do that in response to some of your points.

        But I don’t respond well when pressured to be a pawn for someone else’s agenda.

      7. Before responding to GDon someone might like to ask him to explain in depth (or rather to show us another link where we know he has explained in depth) his reasons for disputing Doherty’s take on those verses.

        I suspect you will accuse me of misrepresentation, but at the bottom of p 168 of his new book, where Doherty describes Paul’s use of that passage and others like “seed of David”, he writes:

        “We are not required to assume that Paul invented or repeated these words with any concrete comprehension of what it meant for a spiritual being to be “of David’s seed,”… “

      8. I find Doherty’s discussion worth serious thinking about. But it does take some thinking about because he is attempting to present a way of thinking that is foreign to us and does not let us casually read the verses in a way that is natural to a Post-Enlightenment Westerner.

        I find Well’s explanation much easier to accept, personally. But that’s not to say Wells’s explanation is necessarily more correct.

        But either way, it is a mistake to assume that “human” equates with “historical”. By definition mythical humans are human. And Paul does appear to think that this human was really a divine being who came down to appear in the form of a man in order to die and return to his divine state. That doesn’t lend itself easily or obviously to “historicity” in our sense of the word.

    3. It seems to me if he wants to know “the mythicist case” he should read the works of the mythicist that he is talking about. I noticed McGrath wrote a number of posts on mythicists, yet a number of times said he has not read their works. This seems ridiculous to me.

      Aside from the fact that there are multiple different mythic views, and his question is like asking ‘what is an the view of health care by a person in the USA?’, it struck me as ridiculas that a self proclaimed scholar is asking you to explain something to him, rather simple reading a few book.

      When I started to see him asking you to explain the mythicists position to him, I thought back to my days as a computer person. Ever go to a sys admin and ask them a question? They are, i am sure in sys admin training school (I’ve always wondered where that is BTW) to give a response. I am sure of this cause the universality of response you get is too consistent for them all just to answer this without being trainned. They will tell you “RTFM”. Read the fucking manual.

      Maybe James should trying reading some books, instead of asking you to explain things to him.


      1. I did put this to James a few times (why not read the stuff he said he spends so much time thinking about and “understanding”) but he replied that “the internet” posters were all he needed, and if he was missing anything they would let him know — only of course he went into defence and denial when they did tell him.

        He is not the first academic I have encountered with this bigotry against the mythical arguments. It is surprising how frequently one can find prominent biblical scholars who have such strong views about mythicism and what they believe are its arguments, but who also happily admit they have never read (and never intend to read) the arguments.

        I am pretty sure James was in sync with probably the bulk of his peers when he compared mythicists with creationists and addressed the issue the way he did. (That was one reason I decided to try to confront him the way I did.)

      2. It is surprising how frequently one can find prominent biblical scholars who have such strong views about mythicism and what they believe are its arguments, but who also happily admit they have never read (and never intend to read) the arguments.

        Neil, here is your comment here:

        I have never been able to bring myself to read a whole page of anything written by the fatuous reasonings of the likes of Acharya S…

        To which, “aziz” (probably Dave31/Freethinkaluva) responds on that thread:

        How would you know something is “far more cogent” than Acharya’s work when you’ve just admitted you’ve never read a single page? Thanks for the inadvertent admission of the intellectual dishonesty and another example of the smears constantly thrown at Acharya/Murdock.

        I have read Acharya S, and I can tell you that your opinion of her work is right on the money. And I think you can get a good idea of a theory by the behaviour of its proponents pushing its case. Something to keep in mind.

      3. I never saw aziz’s reply to my comment, but it sounds like the sort of word-twisting I have become used to from others.

        I did not say I have “never read a single page” and this expression has a very different connotation from what I did say. Word-twisting once again.

        I have tried to read many pages of A’s work, and but do not think I have ever read an entire page through. There’s a difference.

  8. I definitely see axes to grind and counter axes to grind all around. I just wanted to see a productive conversation if one can be found. I understand the back and forth on the missing link analogy, but you and Steven Carr DO have positive reasons for taking mythicism more seriously than not, right? Just like evolutionists. Carrier says he has hundreds of reasons that would take way too much to get into (and that he is busy sorting out right now for his manuscript). I’m assuming you are saying that you’ve already laid out your basic positive case and that it has been rejected in favor of asking for full disclosure of how the myth developed? I understand why that’s unreasonable from your perspective (as you’ve explained in the post). I’ve only skimmed previous posts on the topic between you and McGrath, so perhaps I’d have to go back and more closely scrutinize to see the original rejected material. If I am speaking out of ignorance I apologize. However, if that is the case, I don’t entirely see the reason for this post. You didn’t even link to the rejected material to point and say something like, “This post (or series of posts) should have been good enough, and the following is some perspective on why.” What am I missing?


  9. Hi Ben,

    Not sure what you are missing. I have never “laid out” a mythicist case. I have discussed lots of interesting things about the Bible, and some of these do argue very strongly for much of the narrative being fiction.

    James and others have often demanded to see a full mythicist case laid out before they will accept it. They are not serious, because several “full mythicist cases” have been laid out already. What they seem to want is a case that is impregnable to any critique at all at any point. There is no such historicist case, but that does not worry them. Sorry, they do quote 2 or 3 Bible verses to “prove” the whole historicist case, and cry Foul! if anyone suggests their interpretations rest on shaky assumptions.

    They cannot bring themselves to admit that no historical Jesus case has ever been made yet that does not begin with the assumption that there is a Jesus to discuss!

    My intent here was to try to address the nonsense of their demand. You don’t have to have “a full case laid out” before strongly suspecting William Tell, Rama, Romulus, and as Steve Carr says, Jack and the Beanstalk, are less than totally historical. One can see and discuss many reasons, one by one, for seeing these (and Jesus) as mythical.

    All you need are at first a trickle and then a steady flow of reasons for seeing their is no historical basis to the narratives. I have been accused of merely “nitpicking” for this approach 🙁 and so have been asked to present a full case (something like Doherty’s) that will so overwhelm them that no-one will need to set up any further studies into the question — it will be settled for all time. If they can find a way to argue against it, they will say I have no case. And we have seen the way they argue already.

    I was trying to expose how nonsensical that request is. Not for their sakes — nothing I say will change their minds. But for the sake of getting down my reasons and points for my own interest and for anyone else interested in the discussion.

    All one needs to argue for a mythical Jesus is a few clear signs in some of the evidence, and a complete absence of any secure evidence for the historical model or assumptions that most biblical scholars embrace.

    I don’t see any evidence that James McGrath has any genuine interest in understanding the argument for a mythical Jesus. Whatever interest he does have is negative. Anyone genuinely interested to understand (and not just to find new targets to shoot at) would engage with the discussion honestly — he would read Doherty and Wells and Thompson and Price, as well as their comments on reviews. He would not bring out fatuous insults at the slightest pretext (e.g. on the grounds that they both have varieties of opinions). He would present his counter-arguments against real mythicist points (not his straw-man mutations of them) in a clear and reasoned manner.

    So if he says he is “genuinely interested” I wonder who he thinks he is kidding.

    The circularity of his (and mainstream scholars’) arguments and assumptions, and the fallacies of their “criteria of authenticity”, have all been presented to James, and (as far as I am aware) he simply ignores these foundations on which the case for the historical Jesus are built. If he ever really addresses the logical fallacies on which the “historical Jesus” assumptions and conclusions are based, let me know.

    He dismisses the “minimalists”, too. It is these “minimalists” who started something of the “revolution” in Old Testament studies by exposing the same circularities and fallacies there. James’ only reply is to say that those critiques do not apply to the gospels because the gospels are written as recent history. I pointed out to him that the logic of the methods are not contingent upon a “time gap” to the story at all, and they apply just as much to texts that claim to be eyewitness histories (e.g. Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Isaiah). As far as I am aware James has not replied to this.

    Still, I hope to address in detail a few more related points as time permits.

  10. What GDon says is all fine and good, and there is certainly evidence of an historical Jesus even in Paul’s letters, if not in James and Jude.

    The fact remains that a mythical Jesus is the best explanation of whole books in the New Testament, not to mention the total lack of attestation of the vast majority of the characters in the Gospels, who not even Christians talked about.

  11. Is there really so little evidence for historicity?

    James G D Dunn can cite the following as evidence for a historical Jesus – Romans 15:3 ‘For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.’

    Yes. that is actually cited as evidence of a historical Jesus by renowned Biblical scholars.

    It seems to be impossible for them to read what is written on the page….

  12. GDon,

    I may attempt to publish my own views in time, but first I need to infiltrate biblical scholarship with some regular (and slightly less controversial) publications and get a PhD in theology (I have a PhD in a different field, but not in theology), continue to publish some more regular papers and THEN publish my book on Jesus mythicism. Don’t expect this to come out before 2020 (perhaps I’ll do a “Reimarus” if you know what I mean). You see, without a PhD in theology and without having peer-reviewed publications the work will not even be taken seriously (even though both are fairly straightforward and do not imply expertise).

  13. We have Dr Robert M. Price suggesting a possibility of a mythical Jesus and Dr Thomas L. Thompson arguing Jesus is a myth. Early signs of a changing tide? As Vinny recently intimated here, a huge swathe of biblical scholarship seems to have really become a mouthpiece for apologetic agendas. Time to move back to a Baur? Don’t leave it as long as Reimarus, did, though.

    1. Neil,

      Have you read “The historical Jesus: five views”? There we see how biblical scholars respond to Price. James Dunn’s first sentence in his response was something like “Gosh, so there are still serious scholars who deny a historical Jesus.” (my paraphrase, because I can’t remember it verbatim, although I’m 100 % certain that the first word in his response was “Gosh”). The book just arrived yesterday, so I haven’t gone through it all yet, but it looks like an interesting read. From what I’ve read I think Price could have done a better job, but oh well. Dunn’s response was awful, but Crossan’s was fine (though weak).

      1. Unless Price has put something new out recently, I don’t think he’s ever claimed to be a mythicist. Or a historicist. He’s a “look at all this stuff – isn’t it all neat? People have all these interesting ideas and they’re worth talking about and examining”-icist. He’s a Bible history geek – he thinks its neat and he’s willing to entertain the idea that Jesus may have been historical and entertain the idea that Jesus may be a historicized myth because as he sees it (rightly in my experience so far) there’s no reason to be strongly in one camp or the other given the evidence that we have available to us at this point in time. (Unless of course you belong to a church that requires you to utter as a statement of faith that the man Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died and was buried and on the third day rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. If you have to believe that to be a part of a church then you have skin in the game that forces you to a priori reject the idea of a mythical Jesus that was later historicized even if the evidence is in no way as conclusive as your faith-based outlook would like it to be. Poor sod.)

        So I’m not surprised that Price wouldn’t put forward the best possible case – the cases he has aren’t really his cases, they’re other people’s cases that he’s jumping up and down and say “hey this stuff is neat – why aren’t more people looking at this stuff” and then adding some of his own thoughts and speculation on top of that. I respect that – that’s a lot of what Neil does here actually. Pointing out “hey this is neat stuff – people should be looking at it and thinking about it” and then adding his own thoughts and ideas to the mix to be discussed or taken apart. That’s useful and a worthwhile endeavor for us all, IMO.

      2. I have to say that I am surprised by how contentious this issue is. It seems to me that if you ask liberal historicists like Dr. McGrath about any individual layer of the onion, they will admit that it can be peeled back as mythological. Indeed, they do much of the peeling themselves. Moreover, if you ask them whether almost all of the layers can be peeled back, they will admit that they can. However, if you suggest that all the layers can be peeled away, which seems to me to be just a small step further, they dig in their heels.

        What I take to be Price’s argument, or at least what I find persuasive in Price’s argument, is the idea that there is no layer that cannot be peeled away so it doesn’t make any sense to talk about a historical Jesus because our sources are so bad that he is irretrievable. On the other hand, I think that the problems with the sources probably make the mythological Jesus equally irretrievable. That is why I wouldn’t expect the mythicists to have any more luck than the historicists have in coming up with a single coherent account that explains everything.

      3. One wonders. It sounds sophisticated to be able to argue that this and that are not historical; but to be found out that across your guild there is not a single agreed upon historical detail — now that sounds like the whole exercise is a sham. If not a sham, then a betrayal of the very reason for the faculty’s existence?

      4. Neil,

        I would rather look at it in a more generous light, perhaps in Kuhnian terms. Loyalty to an existing paradigm is a normal part of the academic process and paradigm shifts normally occur because incoming scholars become persuaded, not because established scholars change their views. It does not seem completely fair to fault the established scholars for defending a paradigm that they see as working well, especially since we would be much worse off but for all the layers that historicist scholars like McGrath and Ehrman and Allison have peeled back.

        On the other hand, I thought the comparisons to creationists were needless hyperbole that became tiresome very quickly.

      5. I am quite sure that I am not adequately factoring the in the cultural role of Jesus, although I don’t doubt its existence. Still, I suspect that there are cultural influences that help create the kind of mental blocks that always seem to cause many established scientists to cling to an existing paradigm even when a new one does a much better job explaining the data.

  14. Neil

    As this exchange with James McGrath winds down, I would like to say a simple ‘thank you’. Thank you for all your time and effort in putting forward a reasoned approach to investigating the gospel story. Your blog is an oasis of rational thinking and, as such, a wonderful source of information for others embarking on an intellectual journey through the gospel story.

    So, – cheers, Neil, to life – and to many more blog posts to come…

    1. I also thought it was worthwhile and interesting quasi-debate, but I have a slightly different take; namely, it got too heated at times. I’d not seen McGrath write in that tone before, and I don’t read his blog the same way anymore as a result.

      All scholars seem to have a special (and carefully nurtured) talent for withering dismissal, a sort of scholastic Hyde to the usual placid Jekyll; I declare no innocence myself in this regard. But when the Hydes come out fully, little real exchange of ideas happens.

      1. James’ little foray was a reminder of why self-censorship and towing the correct thought-line is so strong in academia.

        Crossley has written about it in relation to the politics of biblical studies (Jesus in an Age of Terror), and James reminds us how it affects even the research questions academics are (not) permitted to ask.

  15. Someone (I think CJ on McGrath’s blog) put it as an “unwarranted assumption”, but if it is anything it is not unwarranted. Paul appears to write about a Jesus Christ as a man who was crucified in Jerusalem in Paul’s near past.

    That’s not the assumption, that’s an interpretation of evidence made under the burden of an unwarranted assumption, which is that there was a historical figure for Paul to be talking about that shared some minimal set of characteristics with the central figure of the Synoptic accounts. In one sentence, you’ve shown clearly how it is done. Into the minimal conclusion that ‘Paul seems “to write about a Jesus Christ as a man who was crucified”‘ (with which I agree: sometimes he does) you imported both Jerusalem and the recent past from the synoptics on the basis of the unwarranted assumption. Never does Paul locate the crucifixion, in place or in time.

    1. Exactly. GDon’s arguments are generally “aprioristic” — they are hypotheses built upon hypotheses about evidence. To paraphrase Sanders, “If Paul said X, he must have meant Y”. (Some discussions involve going down tunnels and off into side-tunnels and around into other tunnels and struggling all the while to keep in mind the original reason for the discussion.)

      GDon uses Paul’s use of Zion as his reason for arguing that Paul taught Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. Rom. 9:32-33. And here Paul quotes a passage in Isaiah that is only two verses away from a mention of Jerusalem (Isa. 28:16, cf. v14). And then in Rom. 10:9-11 Paul uses another passage from that bit of Isaiah when he is talking about the resurrection. Then in Rom. 11:26-27 Paul again is citing Isaiah (59:20-21), and then Paul speaks of “deliver me” in Rom. 7:24-25 — all this is GDon’s evidence that Paul believed and taught that Jesus was crucified and resurrected at Jerusalem.

      And this entire gossamer argument is only partly hanging from the twig of Zion always having only and nothing but the literal meaning of the physical Jerusalem. (His lays out his argument here. — [Link is dead, 18th August, 2015 — Neil])

      If I only had the letter to the Galatians I might even wonder if Paul said that Jesus was somehow crucified in Galatia (3:1).

      1. To say nothing of course that the verses GDon references never mention a crucifixion and resurrection in Zion, but that the deliverer will come from Zion.

        Perhaps Paul thought Jesus of Nazareth would come from Zion?

        I wonder why Paul was so keen to produce proof-text after proof-text about where the Saviour would come from, but never hint at Galilee.

  16. Jer,

    In “the historical Jesus: five views” Price argues “that it is quite likely there never was any historical Jesus.” For me that’s Jesus mythicism as no Jesus mythicist in his right mind would argue that it is certain there never was never a historical Jesus. I think he is becoming less and less agnostic on this issue.

    1. I sometimes wonder if Price is being extra extra cautious for various obvious reasons. Which is not a bad thing.

      Meanwhile Thompson, who has been through the whole shit so many times before over his work on the “Old Testament” and with biblical archaeology, just comes right out and calls the gospels in this context the Same Same.

    2. Interesting. I’ll have to pick that up and see if he offers anything new that might have shifted his “agnosticism” or if its just the passing of time. His book “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” was one of my first glimpses into the idea that the idea of a mythic Jesus wasn’t utterly refuted back at the beginning of the 20th century as I’d always been told it had been. He and Bart Ehrman are pretty much the reason I became interested in early Christianity in the first place.

  17. GakuseiDon, you wrote above:

    And I think you can get a good idea of a theory by the behaviour of its proponents pushing its case. Something to keep in mind.

    If I can be permitted a bit of staircase wit, do you mean we can get a pretty fair idea of the real quality of the historical Jesus arguments from J. P. Holding, Tim O’Neill, and now James McGrath?

  18. You can get a pretty good idea of the quality of historicist arguments from the following.

    The truth is that I am perfectly open to the possibility that Jesus might not have existed.

    This comes from the guy who will not even entertain the *possibility* that the piece of Matthew 1:16 in Josephus Ant. 20 might be a Christian interpolation.

    That is not a possibility. It has been refuted.

    Similarly, James McGrath will not entertain the *possibility* that the ‘brothers of the Lord ‘ in 1 Corinthians 9 are not blood-brothers of Jesus.

    That is not a possibility. It has been refuted.

    For somebody who claims that history is a case of weighing up possibilities and seeing which is likely, it is remarkable how much is declared to be as impossible as creationist claims that God designed the eye.

    Is history a case of weighing up possibilities?

  19. James had said he had moved on from this topic, but he hasn’t. Not quite yet. He made some rather mistaken remarks about this post in another blog post here, and I have responded as follows:

    Oh do come on now James. You seem as if you are intent on finding fault in any way you can when you write: In one post he even engages in something as childish as switching around elements of my name, calling me “Garth McJames.”

    Do learn to lighten up! And be honest enough to give the context. You can surely see that I was setting up a hypothetical situation and rather than introduce your name into this hypothetical I chose to create a character that readers would see clearly represented you, but was not “you” since the whole scenario was hypothetical.

    This is the second time you have grossly misrepresented what I actually said in that “William Tell” post. I’m wondering if you are incapable of responding to it rationally and can find no way to respond except with ridicule and distortion.

    This is not how evolutionists are capable of responding to creationist arguments. Are you as serious as they are about actually educating and informing the public on the wrongs of creationism? Or are you only capable of winning over those who respond to sarcasm and strawman “rebuttals”?

    You continue here again to make up your own arguments about William Tell and Rama comparisons that bear no relation to what my post was about.

    James, you have a preconceived idea about what you expect me to be arguing and are incapable of actually reading what I do write — you persist in reading into my words what you find fits into your preconceptions about mythicist arguments.

    I at no time drew the assumptions between the two (Tell, Rama, etc and Jesus) that you continue to falsely claim. How about a little bit of honesty and deal with the questions and arguments actually expressed, not just mine, here?

    You say it is pointless engaging with me. Is that because I actually called you to account for evidence you said exists in abundance when there is not a scrap of it by the admissions even of mainstream scholars who specialize in the topic of messianism?

    Or is it because I actually did take up your challenge re the methods and conclusions of E P Sanders and found, contrary to your assertions, that they did not prove historicity at all?

    Or is it because you have been challenged to justify why you use or accept the Gospels as sources of historical events exclusively on the basis of a priori arguments that are nothing more than a narrative’s plot analysis?

    External testimony is the only tool nonbiblical historians rely on for securing historicity, and you know (or ought to) that Schweitzer himself said so. Even in Schweitzer’s own words, the evidence for Jesus cannot even reach positive probability because all sources are themselves Christian — there are NO external controls!

    (No, I am NOT suggesting Schweitzer was a mythicist, so don’t attempt to misrepresent my comment in that way as someone else has done. But at least that person had the good grace to retract his claim when I corrected him.)

    As for the ChristianCadre arguments, what can I say? They do not link to my original post and they seem to have forgotten the responses I gave to each of those arguments they have regurgitated in their recent post. They also, by the way, deleted one of my replies to some of those arguments some years back. They continue to repeat the same arguments that I addressed a couple of years ago — and which they simply ignored or deleted or failed to link to.

    No worries, I will dig them up or repeat them soon enough. But when I do it will be to link to their site so readers can read for themselves he posts being responded to.

    I added a P.S. post:

    James’ comments on the ChristianCadre post as if it is a solid rebuttal of anything I have said when he has not even seen my previously existing replies to those CC “arguments” sums up James’ one-sided blinkered and less than professional approach to the question from the beginning.

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