Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth. Hoffmann’s response. And Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

I discuss here Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth as seen through the eyes of two biblical scholars, mainly R. Joseph Hoffmann, and very briefly Christopher Price. I conclude with my own understanding of the reason (bias) underlying Hoffmann’s perspective of Goguel in his anti-mythicist arguments, and an alternative perspective from Earl Doherty.

Hoffmann compares this book by Goguel with the one discussed in the preceding post by Case:

Whatever its argumentative shortcomings, this section of Goguel’s work [attempting to show that the theology in Paul’s letters and in the apocalypses presupposes the gospel tradition] is especially important in setting out the assumptions and terms of the debate between the myth theorists and defenders of historicity. Goguel is by far superior to other defenders* of historicity because he is willing to acknowledge the serious aporiai of locating fugitive biographical details in a swirl of theological and mythological embellishment. He does not deny, for example, the missionary purpose of the gospel writers. He does not suggest that the reporting of “objective” fact (“natural supernaturalism”) is a part of any evangelist’s agenda. . . . (p. 32-3)

  • In this paragraph Hoffmann footnotes to Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus in its 1928 edition as an example of “other defenders.”

Christopher Price also praises Goguel’s critique of mythicism, describing it as a work of “impressive strength” in “the specificity and thoroughness with which he engages the Jesus Mythologists of his time.” (See the second last paragraph on this page for reference.)

I have discussed different aspects of Hoffmann’s Introduction in three earlier posts that are collated in the Hoffmann:Goguel archive. These posts cite

  • reasons behind scholars embracing the Christ myth view,
  • what are the sound basic premises of the Christ myth idea in Hoffmann’s view, and why interest in the idea collapsed
  • and the weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments

This following looks at some aspects of Hoffmann’s discussion of Goguel’s argument. But first of all, it is worth noting Hoffmann’s concluding judgment on Goguel’s book:

As it is, Jesus the Nazarene is a remarkable book — perhaps the best of its kind — because it poses questions that New Testament scholars must continue to ask in dealing with the newly invigorated question of the historicity of Jesus. Those questions have not yet been answered. I suspect they never will be answered with dogmatic certainty. Goguel poses real challenges to the theory that Jesus never existed, and those challenges have not yet been met with the same high seriousness he displays in his writing. (pp. 34-5)

This estimate of Goguel and that by Price have been challenged, but I will come to that at the end of this post. Till then I want to focus on Hoffmann’s assessment of Goguel.

The challenge Hoffmann believes Goguel presents to mythicist arguments reminds me a little of a similar one made by Albert Schweitzer who also advised mythicists to present a more scholarly and systematic manner of argument:

The fact that in the debate so far these problems have all been confused is chiefly the fault of those who deny the historicity of Jesus. They have followed no pre-conceived plan in the presentation and development of their theories, and have been more concerned with the effective marshalling of their criticisms and assertions than with a real exploration of what is involved or the principles underlying it. It is remarkable that none of their opponents put an end to the confusion by pressing for a distinction between these two different aspects of the problem. Scholarly discussion is possible only when first the more general and then subsequently the more particular issues are considered. (p.396 of Quest)

This and other aspects of the mythicist-historicist debate as discussed by Schweitzer have been outlined here.

The notices of opponents

Goguel acknowledges, “by and large,” the inconclusive nature of the non-Christian evidence for Jesus. He does, however, “in one of his weaker assails,” consider the failure of any of the opponents of Christianity to deny the historicity of Jesus as a strong argument in favour of historicity.

Hoffmann rightly points out the weakness in this argument:

But in this sally Goguel does not give adequate weight to the innocence of the literary procedure through which the gospels, and thus the Jesus story, came into existence. Tacitus, even if his report (Annals 15.44) is authentic, is reporting on the teaching of the cult and not on historical records he is attempting to verify. In general, none of the pagan reports, nor any of the later pagan intellectual critiques of Christianity, casts doubt on the historicity of Jesus for the simple reason that after the second century — the first age of Christian apologetics — the story was regarded as a canonical record of the life and teachings of an authentic individual, thus to be refuted on the basis of its content rather than the details of its historical veracity. (p. 24)

The acknowledged earliest, “objective” and most authentic report of Christianity, the letter of the governor Pliny to emperor Trajan, fails to make any mention of Jesus as an historical figure. Opponents of Christianity such as Celsus and Porphyry considered the insignificance of Jesus in history as a major argument against the religion — hence ‘historicity’ was a point to the advantage of such critics of Christianity.

Goguel is also to be praised for giving serious consideration to the possibility that the “Nazarene” label attached to Jesus originated as a divine name or title rather than as a geographic place-name. He discusses the philological arguments and the inconsistency of the way this name appears to be expressed in different sources.

The Docetic heresies

This point was discussed in an earlier post. In brief, those Christians who argued against the doctrine that Jesus did not have a real flesh and blood body were not arguing against mythicism. The debate was over the form in which Jesus had appeared. Some gnostics also argued that he had appeared at a geographic time and place, but in a spirit form that only appeared to be flesh. The debate was doctrinal. It was irrelevant to the question of historicity.

Goguel argued that “the church’s response to them [Docetic doctrines] would not have been so vigorous if there had been the least doubt about Jesus’ historical existence.” Hoffmann’s view of Goguel here:

The point is not acute. It is not a myth the church was refuting in attacking Docetism; it was the belief that Jesus was of a different order of reality . . . .

Paul and the Gospel

Goguel argues the well-known line that Paul’s silence on the details of Jesus’ life is not evidence that there were no such details to be known.

Hoffmann notes that the strength of this argument limited by virtue of Paul’s having such a strong interest Jesus that he might rightfully be expected to drop tidbits of Jesus’ teaching and biography.

Goguel argues against this point by the (again well known) argument that letters are occasional and circumstantial in nature, and cannot be expected to include references to things that were not immediately germane to the topic of the letter itself.

Goguel cannot drive this point too far, however, because he is aware that much of the historicity thesis depends on a notion that the existence of Jesus would have required a certain “consensus” as to the details of this life and teaching, a unity which was being assailed on a number of scholarly fronts in the early twentieth century. If Pauline Christianity was merely one variety among many, and lacked historical grounding from the standpoint of later orthodox tradition, from what quarter did the historical grounding arise, and when — and for what reason?

Hoffmann nonetheless notes Goguel’s preference for arguing a stronger degree of unity among the early church than subsequent scholarship was to allow.

Scholarship has moved on since Goguel’s time by coming to see the idea of the unified church was a late development. “History and authority became intertwined in the noble Roman fashion,” and orthodoxy succeeded as a result of the propaganda efforts of the likes of Irenaeus to ground its authority in historical tradition and genealogy traced back to “original disciples.” That is, history, and the “historical Jesus” who called and lived with twelve disciples became a key strategic message for one branch of Christianity that enabled them to assume authority and displace the earlier forms of Christianity.

Goguel’s argument for the “unity” of the early church and by extension for the unity of Paul’s message with that of the Jerusalem apostles is clearly strained.

The Ascension of Isaiah contains a section that speaks of a “story of the Beloved Son’s descent from a higher heaven to Sheol, and his reascent to the heavens.”

This myth appears to undergird Paul’s use of a “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2.5-11 and also the baptismal and temptation sequences in Mark 1.1-9, 13, pars. The quarrel between Jesus and the Jews as representatives of Satan, patent to John’s gospel, is also expressed in the Ascension of Isaiah (11.19-21), where the Beloved descends to the powers of hell in order to overcome death, but is betrayed by Satan and is crucified for his attempts to despoil hell. (p. 28)

Hoffmann addresses the problem of the uncertainty of knowing how much of the Ascension of Isaiah belongs to a pre-Christian myth, and compares its place beside other saviour myths like the Hymn of the Pearl and the Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus). Goguel’s argument that the second century date of the Ascension of Isaiah in the final form known to us now is thus argued by Hoffmann as being overly simplistic. The only real difference between the saviour myth we find in Paul and that which we find in the Ascension and similar myths is the specificity of the name Jesus.

The Christians tied their myth to a specific name, whereas the redeemer in the Ascension (like the Gnostic savior) is a cosmic, thus timeless, figure. (p. 29)

This particular discussion by Hoffmann is demonstrably more nuanced, knowledgable and informative than a more recent “scholarly” but ignorant attempt to ridicule an argument that was portrayed as one made by Doherty’s use of the Ascension of Isaiah. The qualitative difference in grasp of the questions raised by mythicist arguments and an understanding of the nature of the evidence itself is spotlighted by a comparison of Hoffmann’s discussion of the Ascension and McGrath’s.

Goguel attempts to tie as much as he can of Paul’s few words that can be taken as references to sayings of Jesus to Gospel sayings. Hoffmann’s conclusion is not different from the one many mythicists reach:

In the long run, one would have to regard this attempt as contrive and unsuccessful.

The peculiar strata of Paul’s thought

Here Hoffmann describes Goguel’s attempt to explain how Paul attempted to reconcile the historical life of Jesus with the doctrine of redemption, and how Goguel conceded that Paul was

unsuccessful at synthesizing these elements “completely at once.” (p. 30)

Paul’s world view consisted of God, demons, sin, evil, law, freedom, redemption. Evil powers rule; therefore sin fills the world; humanity is powerless. Goguel argues “that despite the mythological strata of Paul’s thought, the apostle nonetheless conceives of Jesus historically.” The difficulty here is that:

History is not a literal course of events but a metaphysical process for Paul. The sinful biography of the human race is problematical; the literal biography of Jesus irrelevant (2 Corinthians 5.16), and even if known would remain irrelevant. (p. 30)

Hoffmann notes:

What Goguel in the end is unable to deny, and indeed ends up strengthening, is the case made by the myth theorists that Paul’s understanding of Jesus is essentially spiritual.

Other New Testament literature

Goguel attempted to show that authors subsequent to Paul (authors of the Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews and Revelation) continued the attempt to develop the doctrine of redemption, and that these, too, were dependent upon the gospel narratives.

Jesus in Revelation is “clearly a celestial being, a Lord of Heaven” and “stripped of all human features . . . entirely ideal.” He is caught up to heaven the moment he is born. Merely attributing this myth to a borrowing from Jewish apocalyptic literature does not salvage Goguel’s case for historicity, however. The Gospel birth narratives were destined to become later fixtures in the church, with prefaces to the gospels of Matthew and Luke appearing in the second century,

marking the clear attempt to historicize the prehistory of the “beloved son” of Mark’s story.


Inadvertently, Goguel’s very precise documentation actually lends credence to the myth theory, since it shows how easily the skeletal features of the descent, appearance, and ascension motifs can be rationalized in narrative form. (p. 31)

Order is everything

The myth theory has essentially claimed that the human Jesus of the gospel narratives grew out of earlier Pauline-like traditions. Historicization followed a spiritual or mythical concept.

Goguel thus attempted to establish the reverse: that the theology found in Paul and the apocalypses grew out of the gospel tradition.

Many have noted and remarked on the fables attached to the life of Jesus, and how so many of these can be traced to other Old Testament “prophecies” and anecdotes. (Robert M. Price listed scores of these in his chapter in the “Five Views” linked above. MacDonald and others have even linked many to popular episodes from Greek epic and tragedy. — my comments, not Hoffmann’s)

In response to this form of mythicist argument, Goguel did not devote very much space to attempting to justify the historical reliability of the Gospels. He zeroed in on what he saw as the “chronological and interpretative difficulties in his opponents’ argument.”

Thus, to the familiar thesis of the myth theorists that the whole crucifixion scenario is contained in Psalm 22 and is simply “planted” as a climax of the Jesus story, Goguel objects that if this were the case, it is surprising that no writer prior to Justin Martyr referred to the connection between the Psalm and the passion of Jesus. (p. 32)

(My interjection again: This is similar to the argument that has been leveled against MacDonald’s thesis that Mark drew some of the narrative scenes for his gospel from the Homeric epics, Iliad and Odyssey. If this were the case, how is it that no-one noticed the links before?)

Hoffmann makes explicit the reply for which the above begs:

It can as easily be argued that Justin is the first to make explicit what Christian believers of the previous generation had mistaken for an independent tradition — in which case Justin, in his use of typology . . . becomes one of the first to discover the mythological substratum of the gospels themselves.

I would go further and suggest the possibility that Justin was writing at a time when the narratives that were to appear in the Gospels were being developed through typological explorations. Justin was aware of many that were emerging in his own time, and even sought to create a few of his own from OT typology. But this, of course, is another topic for another time.

Goguel’s scholarly concessions

Hoffmann respects Goguel’s admission in his arguments with mythicism that the Gospel of John is essentially a theological tract, while the synoptics are apologetic — “neither of which characterizations precludes them as essentially mythic in character.” (p. 33)

Goguel, in fact, is comfortable talking about the gospel “idea” as a changing form in early Christian life and thought; from an oral message, to a composite narrative of uneven “historical, biographical, spiritual and missionary interest,” to a narrative that could be used, by the start of the second century, as a sourcebook for doctrine.

At the end of the post I will refer to criticisms of both Goguel’s and Hoffmann’s assessment here. But to continue with Hoffmann’s thoughts:

Goguel argued three primary reasons for seeing the gospels as repositories of historicity: first and foremost they were expressions of a “sentimental interest” of those who had been in contact with Jesus; next they were intended to be preservers of the moral teaching of Jesus since these were so highly esteemed as answers to problems faced at that time; and thirdly they took on a theological interest of human redemption.

Hoffmann points out that modern scholarship has made these views of Goguel obsolete.

The theological interest is primary and causative; as the myth theorists recognized with varying degrees of acuity . . . . And it is out of the defense of the “whole fabric” of the story that the “sentimental” attachment arises — relatively last, and in relatively disjointed, even confused ways. (p. 33)

Despite the criticisms Hoffmann raises against specific arguments of Goguel, he values what he sees as Goguel’s scholarly approach to the mythicist challenge. Goguel argues from the knowledge and the doubts of the best biblical scholarship of his day.

I have no doubt that a book by Goguel written in 2006, rather than some eighty years ago, would reflect greater theological awareness of this loss of certainty on his part. Indeed, he concludes his study, following a consideration of the resurrection story, with a statement that hints at an alternate ending:

“While worshipers of Mithras, Attis and Adonis knew perfectly well that the redemptive history of the heroes plunged into such fabulous antiquity that all reality was lost to it, the Christians were persuaded that it was not at the beginning but at the end of the age that their Christ had lived his life for them could be fitted in a very intimate manner into the reality of history.” For Goguel the operant word is “mystery,” which seems to possess a historical reality completely different from the facticity of birth, life, teaching, and death that he has defended in the course of his reply to Reinach, Drews, Couchoud, and others. If their view, collectively expressed, can be called “myth without mystery,” myth as the fabrication of an idea, then Goguel’s defense of “history” is best described as an apology for mystery as a significant category of human experience, typically — that is, historically — expressed in myth. (p. 34)

That is R. Joseph Hoffmann’s assessment, and I think I can understand where he is coming from and why he has defended Goguel in this way.

My view of Hoffmann’s bias re Goguel

Hoffmann is a leading advocate for humanism, but there are different strands of humanism. Hoffmann is strongly opposed to the “New Atheists”, meaning people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I have also strongly criticized some aspect of their writings on this blog. I hope I am not misrepresenting Hoffmann, but my understanding is that Hoffmann is very opposed to what is labelled “secular humanism.” He respects the role and function of religion amongst humanity, and sees secular humanists as being somewhat fanatical and anti-humanist in their strident attacks on the very idea of religion and God.

I have found some of Hoffmann’s blogposts (The New Oxonian) quite defensive in support of religion as a part of human experience when responding to any atheistic attacks against religion and God “on principle.” He speaks of the “village atheist,” a term that I think is meant to evoke images of the older meme “village idiot.”

From my limited exposure to some of his blog compositions I find my self placing him alongside the likes of Robert Maynard Hutchins, a Classical Liberal philosopher of education. My own stance is probably 180 degrees opposed to Hoffmann’s in that I would see myself as a “secular humanist,” yet without any need to denigrate or offend people who do believe in God and religion. I also see religion having a very meaningful role for many if not most people, and respect that as part of the human experience. There may be other facets that would place me in opposition to the views of Hoffmann but go beyond the scope of this post. With respect to the role and importance of religion for people, I do think it possible to be a “secular atheist” without effectively insulting the rest of the human species. Some recent posts have done on Pataki would be the best indicator of where I also stand with respect to humanism and religion.

So at this point I see Hoffmann as being defensive of the “religious” viewpoint of Goguel, with his understanding of the importance of “mystery” in human life.

I might be wrong here, so I emphasize I am just giving my own glimpse of where things are at with Hoffmann, whom I understand is “atheistic” in some sense at least.

My suspicion is that this positive and personal leaning to the “irrational/mystery” side of human experience has somewhat led them to miss the special pleading, the circularity and the unsubstantiated content of much of Goguel’s argument.

It is to be applauded that a scholar like Hoffmann can acknowledge the scholarly seriousness with which Goguel defends the historicity of Jesus against the mythicists. It is a pity that not all anti-mythicist scholars can raise themselves to that level of intellectual integrity in responding to mythicism.

I also value the experience of mystery, wonder, awe, poetry. But I do so as a secular humanist who feels no loss whatever if all of these “unknowns”, “ungraspables,” are nothing more than the sparks between our synapses. Such a “reductionism” robs me of none of the value of the experience — indeed, it only enhances its value and “mystery”.

I encourage anyone interested in the debate between historicists and mythicists, and who is looking at the debate from beyond the perspective of the “religiously or mystery minded,” to read Earl Doherty’s detailed critique of Goguel’s work alongside Goguel himself.

Doherty’s conclusion begins like this:

Goguel has not even come close to discrediting the mythicist position, and certainly not as it has evolved today. The problem is, for mainstream scholars to be able to perceive this would require them to recognize and acknowledge the special pleading, fallacious reasoning and unjustified conclusions, the reading into the texts the things they want to see there, which scholarship too often indulges in to support its own position. Unfortunately, the inability to do so will effectively prevent a surrender of the view that mythicism has been roundly defeated and needs no further addressing.

Doherty, from my reading of both Goguel and D’s criticism, cuts straight to the chase in alerting readers to the subtle assumptions that feed Goguel’s conclusions and opinions when reading biblical texts. Gospel assumptions still tyrannize Goguel’s interpretations of Paul, despite efforts to insist on treating Paul’s letters as well and truly pre-gospel in time frame. Goguel is still bound by the Eusebian-Acts model of the gospels being composed and having influence a wider (essentially “unified”) Christianity right through the first century even despite the lack of evidence for this. Doherty, I think, demonstrates very well the circularity of his arguments here, how he builds hypotheses about silences on more hypotheses about more silences.

It is a shame that Hoffmann has spoken so derisively of Doherty’s work in comparison with Wells’. Doherty has stated that he deliberately avoids the scholarly language in his books, and pitches his style at the educated non specialist. Doherty has also stepped outside the “Wellsian” form of mythicism (Wells now argues for a Jesus figure behind the Q community), and has advanced a view that is not always called “mythical.” Doherty has in his own way and with his own insights revived much of the argument first heard from Paul-Louis Couchoud for a “spirit” or “spiritual” Christ. Not quite the same as a “mythical” Christ.

Doherty also identifies and marks out the place where Goguel effectively states that he is not going to address the mythicist arguments, but instead argue the position of the mainstream scholarship of his day. And he does.

Doherty has the insight to expose the fallacies, the circularities, the question-begging, the avoidance games, of even a scholar who is attempting to make a serious and scholarly rebuttal against the Christ Myth idea.

Doherty’s critique, I believe, is able to identify the unsupported and circular assumptions tyrannize the conclusions because he is an outsider from the academic guild. His isolation from the guild is both his strength and, unfortunately, his disadvantage, too.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Goguel’s critique of the Christ Myth. Hoffmann’s response. And Doherty”

  1. I think the term “village atheist” has a respectable history of its own going back at least to 19th century America. It refers to the local free thinker who would argue with the parson in the village square.

    1. True, but today it seems to be used mostly as a pejorative term, evoking images of a loud-mouth dope who takes delight in upsetting the good, clean Christians in town, but has no idea what he’s talking about. A better example of a straw man you will not find!

    2. I had never heard it before so maybe it’s an American (also UK-European?) thing. Certainly not in Australia. Unless I had forgotten ever hearing it. (Holding breath in case an Aussie reading this taps me on the shoulder and tells me otherwise.) The context in which I read it a few times was clearly dirisive, though. Gee, I’m finding out lots of new stuff already. Thanks. Where’s Steph? I need her to remind me this is only a blog and therefore mistakes are not important!

      1. I’m sure that the “village atheist” was always a pejorative for the Bible thumpers, but during the late 19th century “the Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll was one of the most celebrated orators in America.

  2. Goguel is also to be praised for giving serious consideration to the possibility that the “Nazarene” label attached to Jesus originated as a divine name or title rather than as a geographic place-name.

    If you confined your reading to mainstream NT authors you might never know that there was any suggestion that Nazarene or Nazorean was a divine name. Yet it should be clear that when the demon in Mark 1:24 recognizes him as “Ἰησοῦ Ναζαρηνέ” it has to be more than a geographical reference. The unclean spirits in GMark who are wise to the messianic secret know that he’s the “Holy One of God” and the “Son of the Most High God.” What’s the point of knowing where he grew up?

      1. Funny how Matthew changes it to “Son of God” (Matt 8:29) while Luke lets it remain as “Ἰησοῦ Ναζαρηνέ” (Luke 4:34). Matthew also changes what the demons are afraid of — from destruction to premature torment. As you alluded to before, Matt as redactor has a heavy hand.

  3. “If you confined your reading to mainstream NT authors you might never know that there was any suggestion that Nazarene or Nazorean was a divine name.”

    The is little lack of hubris among some biblical scholars who seem to think a doctoral degree in one area qualifies them to dogmatically argue about topics they have clearly never fully investigated. When listening to interviews by public interviewers with scientists or specialists in other fields one soon notices many of them declaring when they are speaking from their field of specialization and when they are stepping outside of it. I rarely seem to see that sort of caution in discussions with biblical scholars. “You know who” is the most recently encountered and bleedingly obvious case of this hubris.

    This may even be a factor in why the public is so ignorant in what is really discussed among biblical scholars. Scientists have established projects to disseminate their research to the public in accessible language, even promote what they are discovering and learning to apply. But to talk with some biblical scholars one would be left very ignorant about all that goes on in their field, as you say.

    A few years ago I managed to get a hold of “Nazarene Jewish Christianity” by Ray A. Pritz and “Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects” by A.F.J. Klijn and G.J. Reinink as part of my efforts to understand more about the Nazarene label, and the notes I scratched from those are another set of drafts I’d like to do up on this blog one day. No doubt there is much more and more recent works. But the point is that the literature is there. An outsider like myself can only learn about it by making an effort to follow through bibliographical citations in specialist books or journals restricted to licenced institutions.

    And “you know who” accuses mythicists of not engaging with the scholarly literature!

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