Further explanation concerning “mythicism”

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by Neil Godfrey

After my earlier post on Assumptions and Historicity it appears there is still some confusion about mythical Jesus arguments and points I have raised about the need for external controls to establish the historical value of a narrative.

History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. House Me...
History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. Image via Wikipedia

External controls are more than just nice extras

It has been said that my discussion about absence of external controls for the Gospel narratives merely leaves their historicity “inconclusive”, and that “in order to conclude that these stories are most likely not historical, we need some further argument.”

Certainly the absence of external controls renders the historicity of a narrative “inconclusive”, but “inconclusive” in the strongest sense. That means that we cannot begin to assume historicity at all. To suggest that the absence of external controls still leaves open the possibility of the narrative being historical is obviously true. Anything is possible. What we need is a defensible justification for inferring the historicity of a narrative. It is not valid simply to say we need more than the absence of external controls to conclude a narrative is “most likely not historical”. In the absence of external controls we have no way even to begin to work with a narrative as if it were historical. We cannot justify any assumption of historicity in the absence of a justification external to the narrative itself.

Narrative launching pads

Once we go this route of treating the narratives as narratives alone (because we have no justification for thinking them historical), then we are asking a new set of questions and building a new picture of Christian origins. Some of these questions are already being asked and answered even within the “historicist” paradigm. Dennis MacDonald, for example, has studied the Acts of Paul and Thecla in relation to the Pastoral epistles and proposed a scene of rival Christianities in the early second century that were seeking to claim the authority of Paul.

In the case of the Gospels there are already many useful starting point studies of Mark. Doherty’s analysis of how it combined two broad strands of Christianity owes much to Burton Mack’s Myth of Innocence. The Gospels and other early literature are raw materials for exploring the relationships of their ideas, their expressions, and what can be inferred from all of that.

The approach and questions of those seeing the evidence pointing to a Jesus figure who evolved from multiple communities over time open up a whole new area of insights into the religious world of the first and second centuries. To suggest, as at least one scholar does, that the “mythicist” view of Jesus shuts down historical enquiry is simply nonsense. The new paradigm opens up a whole new universe for exploration.

“Mythical theory”? Please explain.

On another blog (Hoffmann’s) I posted a comment to the effect that I do not understand what is meant by the expression “mythical theory” in this context. Presumably this is to be understood in contrast to a counterpart “historical theory”. I don’t know of any “historical theory” of Jesus, so how am I to understand the term “mythical theory”? (There are “historical theories” but that is getting into the philosophy of history, and I don’t think these are what is implied in this discussion.) I have never heard of historians calling themselves “historicists” as opposed to “mythicists” on the grounds that they believe their subject is about historical persons and events. The object of historical enquiry as it has evolved since von Ranke is to understand and explain causes and events. We can also attempt to understand the makeup of historical persons about which we have the necessary evidence. Historical questions are not normally about whether or not a particular person existed.

This is similar to the point I was attempting to get at in my post What do (Jesus) mythicists believe?

New dimensions, new questions

The evidence (that is, what we know existed) is what historians work with because it is already there. So mythicists challenge the foundation of the historical Jesus enterprise. It’s not that they put an end to history, therefore. Not at all. They are, rather, asking for enquiries to be transported to a new dimension or paradigm that works with real evidence, and not constructs masquerading as evidence. That will mean new sets of questions, too.

So I do not see the point of dismissing the mythical Jesus idea on the grounds that it does not answer all the historical questions. The paradigm that includes the mythical Jesus opens up many new questions and they will not all be explored in a day. Historical Jesus studies have sought in vain for decades for “THE historical explanation” of the nature of Jesus and Christian origins. (One might wonder if it is time to look for an alternative paradigm.) Mythical Jesus studies will no doubt potentially find the journey towards understanding the origins of both Jesus and Christian origins as stimulating as any other enquiry into the origins of social and cultural movements that have likewise come to acquire mythical foundations.

Checking for faults, preparing for the journey

What “mythicists” like Earl Doherty have done is to challenge the assumptions upon which “historicist” interpretations and enquiries are based. There is more to question and tackle, still. I have repeated Schweitzer’s own comments on the “fault of mythicists” in an earlier post. That’s one reason I have taken the particular line I have about historical methodology. Of course I have only been able to do this in a piecemeal fashion and acknowledge the disadvantages of that.

All this is still only preparatory to embarking on the real journey. Demonstrating that the way to account most comprehensively for the evidence is that Jesus was a figure who evolved in the theological interplays of early Christianities is only one part of the story of Christian origins.

Becoming just like other histories

The details of some of the answers will never be recoverable. The history of the rise of new social movements rarely leaves an organized trail of evidence for historians to sift through, and the problem is worse for pre-modern times. Generally historians are left to study peaks of early activity without recourse to all the details about their precise demographics, clearly identifiable relations with earlier and contemporary groups, and so forth. But studies are nonetheless possible (e.g. various studies on Mithraism since Cumont; Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium). Similarly, a study of Christian origins apart from the Eusebian-historical paradigm is certainly possible, but how far we can dig into the details we would like to know will obviously be limited. And the questions the evidence permits us to ask will certainly be different from the sorts of questions that are currently generated by the Gospel-Acts model of origins.

And we just might end up with a more rational and natural explanation of a core element of our cultural heritage. Imagine an explanation that does not fall back on “something that historians cannot examine must have happened at Easter” in order to account for Christianity; or “this is so incredible or embarrassing it must be true”; or people could not have gone out and persuaded thousands so quickly or given their lives if there were not some good reason to think the story true.” All of these are apologetic rationalizations required to maintain an unrealistic model that we have inherited.

Anyone left behind?

(James McGrath, meanwhile, has unfortunately blinded himself to the real nature of the mythicist paradigm by an insistence that it must at all costs be squeezed it into some silly creationist paradigm. His ad hominem attack on the motives of “mythicists”, on the grounds that they have not yet answered all the questions that arise from their paradigm, is his latest indicator that he himself has yet to find a constructive place in the debate. — Although in fact they do suggest many more answers than he is obviously aware of.)

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31 thoughts on “Further explanation concerning “mythicism””

  1. The key issue for me is that I don’t see what evidence we have that is explained better by mythicism. There are some pieces of evidence that fit less well with mythicism, and some that could fit either view better. But what is it about mythicism that makes it an improvement in our understanding? Isn’t that the key to Kuhn’s work on paradigm shifts? There may indeed be resistance to new ideas, but the new ideas eventually take over because they explain the evidence better, do justice to more of the data, or involve fewer ad hoc assumptions. And I simply don’t see that in mythicism in any of the forms I’ve encountered it thus far.

    1. The key issue for me is that I don’t see what evidence we have that is explained better by mythicism.

      But this at least implies that you think it CAN be explained by mythicism, even if you don’t find the probability of the mythic explanation to be greater than the probability of the historical explanation at this time. You’re accepting that the explanation is possible and are now discussing what is probable.

      Is that the case? Then congratulations – you’ve just accepted what Neil has been saying all along. That the mythic case cannot be dismissed out of hand and must actually be countered with evidence.

  2. No, because (1) there is not complete silence, Jesus is said to have been born and died, among other things; (2) the silence about other details is explicable in terms of the fact that he was writing to Christian churches which had already received preliminary catechesis; and (3) there are plenty of details which we might expect Paul to mention if he knew a mythical account of Jesus, and so the relative paucity of information, if one finds it puzzling, is puzzling on both accounts.

    1. (1) Legendary or mythical persons have been known to have been born and died, among other things, so your first point is neither here nor there.

      As for (2) this collapses for many reasons (to summarize a few):

      – a previously received catechesis would expect to make some appearance in conversations from at least one of the authors of one of the letters (not only the “genuine” Paul) — just a few years after the events of Jesus; though I am sure there would have been more than a catechesis as narrowly defined to be accounted for and pop up on communications (the lubricant of communication is common experience, after all);

      – in all the controversies addressed by the letter writers one would expect some appeal to the life and teaching of Jesus with which the audiences were already familiar with to settle a matter;

      – and of all the times when any of these authors reminds their readers of how to live they nearly always quote the Jewish Scriptures and fail to appeal to the similar words of Jesus;

      – – and there are other reasons too, too lengthy to detail here especially now I’m in a rush

      – – – and I also invite you to seriously answer Steven’s point this time. It is a most legitimate one.

      (3) there are plenty of details we might expect Paul to mention if he knew a historical account of Jesus . . . .

      1. Most scholars think we do have some appeal to the teaching of Jesus in Paul’s letters, in spite of his not having actually witnessed it and thus much to his chagrin having to rely on second-hand information. Few think it is more likely that teachings which stem originally from Paul’s letter got attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, rather than Paul having been quoting or alluding to sayings attributed to Jesus – as for instance in the saying attributed to “the Lord” about divorce in 1 Corinthians, which is contrasted with his own teaching.

      2. Are you appealing to majority opinion here for your argument? Of course many scholars do think that — their model compels them to find something of Jesus’ teachings in Paul. They need them there. But Paul keeps quoting the Jewish scriptures and they “think” these quotations are allusions to Jesus’ teachings?

        And not only Paul but the other epistle writers do the same? And when not quoting scripture they “allude” to “Jesus’s words” as though they are their own — and all this how long after their introductions to the faith?

        And not once in trying to settle a single controversy could any of these authors settle the matter with “Jesus himself said!”?

        This is not very persuasive — unless you are trapped by a certain model that demands you must see those shapes in the clouds.

        Your rejoinders so far are straight from the “textbook lists” of “rebuttals” since the early twentieth century. They are slogans that fail to grapple seriously with the arguments.

        You are entitled to repeat them. But you also need to acknowledge that there are also reasonable and sound arguments against them.

      3. No, Neil, I’m simply alluding to the fact that this is not a mere individual judgment. It isn’t clear from your reply that you are aware of the instance I’m referring to, and I didn’t expect to be asked to reproduce over again ground that is already well-trodden. If you had offered something that challenged the consensus, I would have responded to it. But thus far I’ve only encountered “It could have happened another way” with no evidence of awareness that many scenarios are possible, and historians are trying to identify which is most probable.

      4. If you knew anything about those arguments for the mythical Jesus you would know they engage the scholarly literature and are aware of a bit more than you give them credit for.

        You will also be aware that there is a difference between “going over the same thing so many times” and simply “repeating” the same thing so many times. I think there is usually a bit of obfuscation going on here — what is meant when scholars often say the former is really the latter.

        You asked for reasons and I gave you the reasons. If I had any more confidence in your intent I would take more time and add some evidence. But you have not found time to reply to the points I made on 2 of Sanders’ points after you implied one could not engage his work and come up with different opinions on historicity, so I am not in a hurry to rush with what you say you want to see.

        If you are prepared to seriously discuss any particular point of the evidence either for or against then I am more than happy to engage.

        But just sitting back and complaining that you don’t get all the answers to your satisfaction in a few ad hoc blog comments will never get you very far.

      5. OK, well having read books and book chapters by folks like Doherty and Price (I’m afraid Thompson’s book is still sitting on the shelf waiting for me to have time to get to it) I’m unimpressed. And since you don’t consider blogs an appropriate forum for detailed arguments, I’ll simply refer you to the vast amount of historical scholarship available. It really is quite impressive, both in its honesty about what we do not know, as well as identifying those few points about which we can be relatively certain.

      6. Thankyou. It is with that vast amount of scholarship that I am continually engaging — as you will note from a quick survey of my blog posts over the last few years. (I had expected a little credit for engaging with Sanders in the way you challenged me to do.)

        Hope you saw my main reply here below to your initial post, by the way.

      7. Well, your statements about Sanders merely showing that parts of a story cohered with other parts of a story left me with the impression that you mistook a historical approach for a literary one. But I certainly thank you for taking the time to mention him, even if I didn’t find your engagement persuasive.

      8. It may be thought of as a “historical approach” but there is nothing more than an assumption that it is delving into real history. There is no evidence that that’s what the approach is actually doing. It might even be said to be an illusory approach if taken, as it is, as an excavation of history.

        If we stick with the evidence then we can see that the approach is doing nothing more than analysing narrative plot in the light of historical assumptions for which we have no evidence.

        The whole approach is founded squarely on an assumption of historicity underlying the narrative, and there are no external controls to justify that assumption.

        Is it not the same approach we use when analysing the character of Hamlet, only with the added dimension of bringing in an assumption of Hamlet’s historicity, so that we can also throw in details from the kingdom of Denmark external to the narrative? (The analogy is not perfect. But as an illustration of a basic idea it is valid, yes?)

  3. It struck me the other night while musing on these issues that an interesting “meta-silence” (“meta-” since he never alludes to the miracles anyway) of Paul communicating with gentiles on the subject of a God-man is that he never once alludes to the charge or attempts to answer it that Jesus was just a sorcerer or a magician as opposed to a legitimately divine agent or wonder-worker. The period was one in which the relation of persons to supernatural power to was fraught with controversy. Sorcery and collusion with demonic forces was the commonest charge against those claiming communion with divine power, likely more common than that of simple fraud. (And, those whose response to Paul’s story was to consider it simple chicanery on the part of Jesus (or of Paul) likely would not have stuck around to hear more, whereas those who found it compelling might still have needed reassurance on the order of “how can we be sure that the powers of this amazing figure were not demonic?”)

    So, newly proselytized gentile Christians in Corinth, for whom Paul feels compelled to clear up a number of controversies not evidently defused or forestalled by the transmission of a “preliminary catechesis,” have no anxiety on the score that this recent figure of history claimed to be a divine man being nothing of the sort but a magician, surely the easiest social template for those persons (innocent, presumably, of Near Eastern “messianic” ideas) to frame such a figure.

    The gospel authors seem to confront this anxiety, if obliquely, so it seems it is not until we find texts putting forth an explicitly historicized figure that this iconic Axial Age controversy becomes an issue.

    Just spitballing.

    (2) the silence about other details is explicable in terms of the fact that he was writing to Christian churches which had already received preliminary catechesis;

    As in 1 Corinthians 3
    ‘Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.’

    These churches were told all about the deeds,sayings,healings and exorcisms of Jesus.

    But that was mere milk, not solid food.

    How could any Christian regard all these alleged oral traditions about the teachings of Jesus as ‘milk’,and not to be compared with the ‘solid food’ that Paul taught?

    Unless there had been none of this alleged oral tradition about the life of Jesus?

  5. James F. McGrath Says:
    2010/03/08 at 10:59 pm

    The key issue for me is that I don’t see what evidence we have that is explained better by mythicism.

    What do you mean by “mythicism”? I don’t really understand such a comment, though I think I can guess what you are tying to say. But academics are understood to be particularly careful with how they articulate their points, so it’s something to think about. (I also questioned Joseph Hoffmann’s use of the term “mythical theory”. Careless expressions muddy the debate and don’t help understanding.)

    “Mythicism” is no more a theory or “explanation” than is “historicism” or “historical” a theory or explanation of anything. (Read my “What do (Jesus) Mythicists Believe?” post. You missed the point before.)

    If by “mythicism” you mean something akin to “creationism” then why even ask the question? Everyone knows what creationists believe and that they have no alternative explanation at all apart from “God did it”, and all evolutionary scientists have to do is bring out the evidence to expose the misunderstandings or half-truths of the creationists. So I am not sure I understand where you are coming from with your question.

    There are some pieces of evidence that fit less well with mythicism, and some that could fit either view better.

    Can you give an example of each? It would help if I knew what specifically you are referring to here.

    But what is it about mythicism that makes it an improvement in our understanding?

    Again, the question does not make much sense, given that “mythicism” is not a theory or model or explanation any more than is the word “historicism”. (Okay, it is at a philosophical level but I am keeping the discussion on what is the immediate issue here.)

    When you speak of “improvement in our understanding” what sort of understanding do you mean, exactly? Just the mere fact that something happened in history? If so, what exactly? Do you mean something in the Gospel narrative especially? Something specifically in the time of Pilate? Because if you mean something like that, then the question about “mythicism’s” contribution to understanding that makes even less sense.

    Isn’t that the key to Kuhn’s work on paradigm shifts? There may indeed be resistance to new ideas, but the new ideas eventually take over because they explain the evidence better, do justice to more of the data, or involve fewer ad hoc assumptions.

    Now we might be getting somewhere: explaining the evidence better, doing more justice to the data, involving fewer ad hoc assumptions.

    Obviously you can’t expect a full answer in a comment box on a blog. But yes, to be persuaded that there was almost certainly no historical basis to the gospel narrative one generally needs to study the evidence and compare the different explanations.

    If one explanation continually appeals to an assumed model and the other brings fewer assumptions to the evidence, then one would normally tend to side with the latter as the more plausible.

    If one explanation appeals to a statement like “something happened that we can’t understand” (as you do in your Burial of Jesus) or appeals to claims that seem to be accepted by virtue of their being repeated so often despite being entirely a priori arguments without any evidence in their support, or generates a debate over which of several incompatible explanations should be accepted as an explanation for evidence — while the other explanation resorts to no such “somethings” or a priori arguments or confused possibilities of explanations to make them fit a model, then I think many would tend to opt for the latter as the more persuasive.

    If one explanation explains a significant amount of the evidence within the parameters of the hypothetical model, while the other explanation find much more scope for explanation in the broader thought and culture and literature of the age, then I think again we know which one is the more persuasive. (Of course I know NT scholars explain many details in terms of the broader culture, but I am speaking here comparatively.)

    If you are asking for the reasons here they are, at least from my perspective.

    And I simply don’t see that in mythicism in any of the forms I’ve encountered it thus far.

    Of course you haven’t. Why not make a genuine effort to firstly understand what is the difference between “mythicism” and a historical theory or hypothesis. Your understanding of “mythicism” (equating it with “creationism” and not using the term in a coherent manner) is your blind spot.

    What I think you mean by “mythicism” is really a conclusion that has come to see the evidence or the narrative in a certain way as a result of historical enquiry. “Mythicism” is not an explanatory theory at all. The historical enquiry used to reach this conclusion does not involve circularities, but seeks to bypass them. When NT scholars claim that methods like those of E.P. Sanders are “proving” the historicity of Jesus, then they are making a circular claim.

    Once the evidence is seen in this particular way that leads to the conclusion that Christianity had origins elsewhere than in a person in Galilee, then we can begin to think about constructing theories to explain it all. NT scholarship has had little success in coming to any conclusive understanding of the Jesus of the narrative as a historical person. Maybe an alternative model is worth a shot.

    1. OK, if one has read mythicists (assuming there is such a thing as “mythicism” and people like Robert Price, Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier represent it to some extent) and does not find anything at all preferable about this alternative model, and still feels that in key areas it does less justice to the available evidence than the approach of mainstream historical scholarship, what do you recommend as the next step?

    2. I can certainly do that! 🙂 But it has long seemed to me that the proponents of the mythicist view were wanting more than that – that they were blaming “entrenched scholarly assumptions” rather than entertaining the possibility that their own arguments were not entirely persuasive.

  6. Paul does claim that he has received teaching from the Lord.

    He doesn’t claim that Jesus preached it during his time on earth.

    Romans 3
    What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.

    The Jews had been given scripture, not lessons on divorce by Jesus.

    1. Although presumably this will result in a rant that jumps from one topic to another, presumably mentioning Jude and Lee Harvey Oswald at some point, I feel it is at least worth attempting to point out that in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul does indeed attribute to “the Lord” a teaching against divorce. And as Steven rightly points out, this was not a reference to a passage from the Jewish Scripture.

      It seems harder to make good sense of the passage in terms of Paul having received a miraculous revelation about one point but not the other, and also harder to believe that this revelation of Paul’s became accepted as part of the teaching attributed to Jesus, even in Gospels like Matthew which take a different stance than Paul on the Jewish Law.

    Well, your statements about Sanders merely showing that parts of a story cohered with other parts of a story left me with the impression that you mistook a historical approach for a literary one.


    Sanders produced no evidence that the events in the Novels were anything other than literary creations, so McGrath has decided to engage in bluster,calling Sanders approach a historical one, when that has been shot down in flames by Neil.

    Bluster, abuse, dismissive comments, an inability to engage in debate.

    No wonder the reputation of McGrath has plummeted this year.

    Meanwhile, in the real world, historical Jesus scholars continue to crash and burn in their repeated quests to find an historical Jesus.

    Or rather, to decide which of the 17 historical Jesus’s they have found they can get other scholars to agree is the real one.

  8. So James continues to produce zero evidence from Paul that Jesus preached about divorce while he was alive.

    Or that Jesus preached ANYTHING while he was alive.

    All we have is a revelation from the Lord, which is no different from Paul’s claims that the Lord spoke to him when Paul was being assailed by messengers from Satan.

    But McGrath knows perfectly well that mythicists have answered these points many times, and yet he thinks they are unanswerable.

    While McGrath cannot answer the plain fact that Paul is very clear about where his Christianity comes from. It comes from scripture, it comes from the Law and the Prophets.

    According to Paul,that is what Jews had received – scripture and then the Jews had had sent to them Christians to preach about Jesus.

    Paul is so vocal about where his Christianity comes from -scriptures and revelations from the Lord – that McGrath has to claim that Paul is silent, to avoid listening to him.

  9. In 1 Co. 10, Paul indicates that he learned the teaching on the Lord’s Supper by revelation. If we do not take Paul’s claim at face value, one perfectly reasonable hypothesis is that Paul learned of a ritual meal while persecuting a messianic sect in Jerusalem and deemed it part of his revelation after his conversion experience. I don’t think there is any way to guess how much Paul may have reinterpreted and elaborated the practice.

    I think it is also reasonable to think that Paul learned that the messianic sect forbad divorce. After his conversion, he deemed that part of his revelation and taught it as “from the Lord” while adding his own flourish that believers would be better off avoiding marriage in the first place. It is of course possible that Paul thought of the prohibition as something that a historical person taught his followers during his earthly ministry, but I don’t see anything else in Paul’s writings that makes that alternative particularly more compelling.

    As has been pointed out, Paul’s discussion of the prohibition doesn’t look very much like Mark’s or Matthew’s. Paul doesn’t mention adultery. For Paul being married is simply a state that one might find himself in upon conversion like being uncircumcised, being a slave, or being a virgin. Paul is explaining how the believer should treat such circumstances in light of the fact “that the time is short” rather than interpreting the Mosaic Law.

    In short, I think 1 Cor. 7 makes at least as much sense read as an independent attempt to explain an existing practice as it does read as the product of the specific teachings reported in Matthew or Mark.

  10. VINNY
    If we do not take Paul’s claim at face value, one perfectly reasonable hypothesis is that Paul learned of a ritual meal while persecuting a messianic sect in Jerusalem and deemed it part of his revelation after his conversion experience.

    What sort of historical Jesus told his followers how to continue the movement after his death by conjuring up his body and blood in a ritual meal, so that people could remember him?

    Nobody has ever come up with an historical Jesus leading a movement that he would expect to continue after his death.

    The whole point is that allegedly Messiahs did not expect to die, and so a dead Messiah had to be explained away.

    One way to explain away a dead Messiah is to claim that he saw it all coming.

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