Why I am Not a “Mythicist”, and why I challenge mainstream methodology

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by Neil Godfrey

This cartoon has nothing to do with the post, but I like to add a bit of colour, and blue is my favourite colour, and I like mermaids, and I can’t find anything else appropriately mythical.

I suspect [ETA: strongly suspect] Jesus originated as a theological and allegorical creation, that he was “a myth” if you like. I do not know it. I cannot prove it. But I can see some very good arguments in favour of this proposition. I can also see some very good reasons to question the standard methodology of mainstream scholars based on the assumption that Jesus was a historical figure. And the same questions I raise about this methodology also open up questions about the standard mainstream arguments for the historicity of Jesus.

But I have never thought of myself as “a mythicist” because that sounds to me like I am entrenching myself in a position that I will defend at all costs.

I have posted this sort of remark before, but given that James McGrath and others continually label me “a mythicist”, I will repeat it once more. I do not see the point of “defending” a “mythical Jesus” position.

That is not what historical inquiry is about.

Would any scholar bother to spend a career arguing for or against a historical or mythical Socrates? Some mainstream scholars really do question the historical existence of Socrates, but no-one calls them “Socrates mythicists”. It is a ludicrous proposition when we see it in the context of nonbiblical studies. The existence of Socrates has been occasionally raised as a minor side-point that is really quite irrelevant to the real historical questions about the origins and nature of early Greek philosophy.

My interest is, to repeat, in exploring the origins and nature of early Christianity.

I think that this historical inquiry has been held captive by mainstream NT historical methods that begin with the presumption that the narrative of Gospels-Acts is in some sense related to real events. What I have questioned is the rationale for this assumption. I have offered as an alternative approach to the sources for early Christianity the same methodology and logical consistencies that have been at the vanguard of the “minimalist” enterprise in Old Testament studies. That means understanding how historical inquiry works in nonbiblical studies (and now in OT studies thanks to the so-called “minimalists”), and applying the same standards in NT historical studies.

In practice, this, I suspect, will mean a greater focus on studying the texts with a view to investigating the various conditions that might have given rise to their various narratives. It will rely primarily on external controls for both dating and provenance. It will, yes, as part of the package “take seriously” (as they say) the historical research that questions the presence of Pharisees, synagogues and Nazareth in early first-century Galilee. It will be more rigorous in its review of how evidence from one era is often extrapolated to cover another period.

So I am a tentative mythicist by suspicion, but that is saying nothing. Any honest historical inquiry will mean holding any and all positions tentatively while the exploration continues.

I will certainly defend any arguments for a mythical Jesus if I see them challenged by flawed or misinformed reasoning. And I will argue a point or two for a mythical Jesus if I see it is strong or suggestive and worth serious consideration.

If others call me “a mythicist” in this context, I will normally let it go and not deflect the argument over labels if it’s not necessary. I certainly think the arguments that Jesus was nonhistorical are far stronger than those that say he was historical. But I also maintain a constant questioning in the back of my mind: “What if I am wrong on all of this? What might I be overlooking or misunderstanding?”

I would have thought any honest scholar would, by profession, think the same way.

So if one day I discover my arguments are based on some fallacy or lack of information that renders them all invalid, or that there is something to historical Jesus arguments that I have failed to grasp, or that we really do have evidence for the historicity of the core of the Gospel narrative, then that will be great. It will mean I have an exciting chance to correct errors and learn new things.

So others can call me a “mythicist” if they like, but they must not expect me to dig in and defend or promote some particular argument that does not interest me as some sort of “article of faith” about “the mythicist position”.

But when scholars tell outright lies about what I write and what I argue, and slander and ridicule me, and respond by swearing at me, they are not exactly being at their most intellectually persuasive, IMHO.

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Neil Godfrey

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23 thoughts on “Why I am Not a “Mythicist”, and why I challenge mainstream methodology”

    But the rigors of historical investigation, including attempts at source criticism, are worth the effort, even if they provide relatively little that is reasonably certain and highlight how much we do not know.

    Yes, and McGrath would call you every name under the sun, if you suggested that there is no evidence for Judas, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Joanna, Salome etc etc.

    McGrath knows perfectly well that True Historians have no methodology which actually works, unlike non-Biblical historians, and so has to resort to insults and name-calling when people question the historicity of the Gospels.

    1. Yes, McGrath has many references in his self-published book, The Burial of Jesus, to the lack of certainty in historical findings. But when it comes to questioning the core of his faith his historical antennae suddenly become very alert to black and white questions of certainly true and certainly false. (Why is it that McGrath is not poo-poohed for “vanity publishing” one of his books like Doherty is?)

  2. Neil,

    I completely agree with you here. Gospels-Acts is not the place to start any serious enquiry into early Christianity. We should start with the whole collection of early Christian writings without making any assumptions concerning authorship or reliability of the contents. This makes Irenaeus so valuable, because anything known by Irenaeus, which is quite a lot (it is really Christianity’s Cambrium explosion), is 2nd century at the latest (while realizing that what he writes is apologetic in nature). This gives us many of the texts and various groups of Christians that were active at the time of or prior to Irenaeus, which forms the basis for sorting out the data.

    There is no sense in starting with Paul, because how do we know anything about Paul? We all know the problems of Acts and the possibility that Acts was written in response to Marcion (which is just one of the potential problems in using Acts as a historical basis) and how do we know whether a text was written by a historical Paul? Given the likelihood that many epistles in the Pauline corpus were not written by Paul (just like so many other early epistles are thought be be pseudepigraphical) on what basis do we conclude that any given epistle is from “Paul”? What is our external control when we acknowledge the problems with Acts?

    We also can’t start with Jesus, because of the well-known difficulties in determining whether anything in them is historical. Whether or not there was a historical Jesus we must acknowledge that it is the 2nd century where we get the data we need for any serious enquiry. For me this makes the question of the historicity of Jesus merely of secondary interest. Given the religious bias in Biblical Studies I understand why the McGraths of this pseudo-academic field get their nickers in a twist when anybody claims there was no Jesus, but really who cares? Atheists have no apologetic reason for claiming there was no Jesus, because even if there was, all the supernatural bits attributed to him are still false.

    I admire your persistence in addressing these issues and even interacting with the Godfearers like McGrath and Watts who cannot be expected to be openminded with regards to early Christianity because of their religious delusions. For me it is a bit like talking to somebody who believes in alien abductions about UFO sightings. McGrath likes to think that a consensus in Biblical Studies is comparable to a consensus in other fields, but of course it is the religious bias that makes this comparison invalid.

    1. Thanks for the comment. As you probably realize anyway, whenever I do interact with someone like McGrath, I am not really addressing them. I am using their points as foils with which to address a wider audience that reads this sort of gumpf. I would have done almost anything when I was a believer, questioning, to have had access to what the scholarship really says, to alternative viewpoints, to discussions addressing the foundations of what is taken for granted.

      1. And of course James has seized on my comment here and rephrased it in his subsequent comments to mean that “I am not actually addressing him” at all!

        Of course by using the word “really” I was suggesting two levels of address — one is the intellectual engagement but that is the raw material: the “real” audience are the swinging voters, the chairperson, the audience of the debate, the wider readership. I was responding to a remark that indicated it is a waste of time talking with people with closed minds, and it is. I would not spend the time of day with McGrath et al in a personal conversation. The issues are made public, so I address them publicly. Academics engaged in debates with peers are rarely truly expecting to change the minds of their opponents. They are attempting to persuade or address their wider reading public. That’s the nature of public debate.

        If McGrath really was wanting to address me personally he would have engaged me personally. In earlier exchanges with Stephanie, for example, I sometimes thought she was saying something she surely could not really mean, so rather than embarrass her publicly I emailed her in private to try to sort out few differences “offline” a couple of times. She appreciated that.

        Our debates were public, and addressing a public audience. If it veered towards crossing the lines into something personal, I treated it personally and privately.

        I don’t think anything more needs to be said.

  3. Mind you, the question of a real Jesus is settled.

    James McGrath claims that if somebody who never met Jesus claimed Jesus was descended from David, then Jesus must have existed.

    Just like if I claimed Cadfael was descended from King Arthur, then only a lunatic would wonder how a real person could be descended from King Arthur….

    These are the standards True Historians use. If somebody is claimed to be descended from Romulus or Remus, that claim is proof that the person existed.

    1. And James will insist to his grave that he uses the same historical standards of inquiry used by all historians. He knows, because he asks some of them in the corridor. History is an art, one of them had the original wit to quip. Only by artistry and advanced training in criteriology can one ever become a real historian.

      When I pointed out to him the origin of the “history is an art” aphorism and what it really meant (von Ranke, and it refers to how a historian constructs his story from the evidence, not how to discover evidence) he simply carries on his argument without the slightest worry about letting silly facts like that get in the way. Facts are, in his alternative matrix view, merely just another set of claims anyway, so they can be ignored or cited as convenience dictates.

      And poodle Joel Watts will pop up beside him with an approving yap. And someone will say I am not worth reading because I usually write “an historian” instead of “a historian”.

      If we are to be judged by the company we keep, . . . .

      1. Yes, I noticed McGraths quote of the day. Fortunately I knew its context and what you meant. I’m surprised “Dr” Jim West didn’t add an “amen” in the comments section as well.

      2. Yes, I’m pretty naive, aren’t I. It rarely occurs to me to watch so carefully what I write in a comments box. I tend to assume my words will be kept within context and if not, a quick response can clarify them. (But I should have expected him to be raging his way through my posts trying to pin something on me after I called his historical methodology “daft”.)

        That’s the second time McGrath has picked up on a comment of mine and twisted it in a bold header on his blog against me. Nice chappy, isn’t he. Steph will assure me he is the nicest and most courteous of blokes, too. So what is it about me? McGrath can’t even understand what I’m arguing. But he indicated a possible reason for that on his blog today when he compared me with himself as an erstwhile creationist. Maybe he can’t help but project himself into me, and that would explain why he can’t accept what I say at face value, but is obliged to twist everything into something he himself once believed or some parallel to it.

        I’m surprised he or any academics read my blog at all, let alone that any of them react so viscerally to my posts. Hell, I’m just a layman with a hobby here. This whole thing started out with trying to share ideas I read and found interesting. Couple of years later, whammo!

    1. Thanks for that link. I read through the posts. I liked, among other things, this remark:

      I think that there are some criticisms that can be levied at some of Bauckham’s arguments and claims, too. But at least he’s done the hard work involved (acquiring the languages, working through the scholarly literature, etc.) that justifies his work being critically considered.

      Like Maurice Casey, learn an ancient language, read the literature, and you have the right to earn respect even if you publish something that is riddled with logical fallacies and consists entirely of groundless and ideological speculation.

      Making a mental note here: Put the likes of Larry Hurtado in the same basket as Steph who insists you have to be a “real scholar” like Casey or Crossley or McGrath before you’re allowed to offer a criticism or alternative viewpoint — in other words, as per the Chomsky media model, only those who go through the requisite training and mind conditioning so that they learn to think the correct thoughts (logic and fact and nonbiblical norms will be excluded from the curriculum) and ask the correct questions will be granted permission to enter and/or comment on the guild.

      1. Of course, when creationists deny that transitional fossils exist, they get wiped out with the evidence for transitionals.

        When mythicists deny that Judas existed, they get told that scholars have learned Greek and Aramaic, so piss off.

  4. If you read the comments on that blog, you will see that ‘evidence’ to New Testament scholars like Richard Bauckham is claiming that something must be eyewitness testimony about Jesus if it is in Aramaic 🙂

      1. To be fair,Professor Larry Hurtado is a lot more professional than many other NT scholars.

        As can be seen from the latest exchanges.

        He is still not doing what James McGrath knows evolutionists do to creationists – swamp them with evidence when they deny that transitional fossils exist.

  5. What McGrath, Hurtado, Casey , Bauckham have in common is that they appear never to have done any history outside Biblical history , or some church history.

    Surely such great historians should also help out historians in other fields. It is not like they are scientists who specialise in one thing, say, astrology, and would be lost if they moved into another field, like, say, astronomy.

    They are real historians who ,for some unknown reason, never seem to be invited by historians in other fields to do research projects.

    1. I have just read McGrath’s review of Robert Price’s chapter in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. It was helpful. I think I can now see that McGrath has trained himself to respond to arguments he does not like by ignoring their central points, and looking for a hook he can use to condescendingly put them down, or even ridicule, or otherwise declare them vacuous. It’s his style. It’s how he works.

      For example, we have this sort of thing by McGrath:

      Price . . . seems to think that the fact that Judaean religion was not yet monotheistic in Ezekiel’s time means that an affirmed monotheist like Paul would have happily borrowed from myths about Tammuz.

      As McGrath does with my posts, he deliberately twists Price’s words and meaning. For example, when Price explains the reason or motive that orthodoxy had for creating Jesus as a historical personage, McGrath consistently says Price is arguing that the church was creating a “fictional” person. There is quite a conceptual gulf between historicizing an already existing fictional entity and “creating a fictional character”. But McGrath deceitfully twists Price’s argument into this sort of outright misrepresentation.

      And he simply tells outright falsehoods about what Price argues. He says, point blank, that Price never explains why such a fictional character would be historicized (though he accuses Price of something else as I just explained) yet Price does do exactly this in his final paragraphs!

      McGrath’s main complaint is that Price never seems to demonstrate that if a narrative has all the signs of being adapted from some other source, then that makes it likely that it was adapted from some other source. McGrath does not address the detailed argument Price makes here, but simply says “so what?” and that it is more likely that the original narrative really was about someone real after all. No argument. Mere assertion in defiance of the wealth of evidence Price cites.

      What is worse, though, is the scenario that McGrath implies throughout as being far more plausible or probable than Price’s scenario. This is that a failed prophet who was rejected by most Jews in his lifetime and was crucified as a criminal would, after his death, be worshipped by thousands of Jews as some sort of divinity or mediator alongside God himself.

      McGrath keeps the baldness of this scenario in the background of course, because he knows it will make Price’s scenario suddenly look so much more probable after all!

      Oh, and if anyone who favours a mythicist argument complains about the way McGrath seems to habitually twist and misrepresent or fail to address their points, he will simply declare them to be responding “like creationists” do. He’s that sort of bloke. As far as I can see he has no intellectual integrity at all when dealing with an argument that threatens to challenge the foundations of his faith-based history.

  6. Professor Hurtado is claiming that these people existed because they are in the Gospels.

    And that nobody disputed who wrote the Gospels, and ‘ Indeed, the anonymous authorship of the Gospels suggests no desire to claim ownership of what they wrote, not an intention to deceive.’

    So not only were the authors known, they were also anonymous!

    You have to laugh, don’t you?

    ‘These letters presuppose readers already converted, already introduced to the Christian message and Lord knows what body of traditions.’

    Same old stuff.

    There is no evidence of oral traditions,so Professor Hurtado just uses his imagination.

    1. I hope he doesn’t read Levinson’s Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation. There is a very good reason sitting on the shelf that potentially explains the anonymity of the gospels: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/12/05/an-explanation-for-the-gospels-being-anonymous/

      Catching up with the methodologies and literary concepts being bandied about in OT scholarship could undermine the whole historical Jesus/Christian origin scholarly enterprise.

      1. Professor Hurtado explains that while the gospel writers were anonymous, nobody disputed who wrote them.

        I don’t know what Larry Hurtado can do. If he uses the methods of real historians, he would be shooting his own fox.

        All he can do is tell people to clear off.

      2. It’s a shame. There are so many NT biblical historians I have learned so much from. It just doesn’t pay to ask them personally to justify their assumptions or methods when it comes to areas where they leave questions hanging for anyone not of their faith or guild.

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