So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.
James McGrath once wrote:
I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.
So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the non-historicity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:
There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting?
Confrontation and demolition, not dialogue and reasoning engagement
This is the same unfortunate experience we have had on this blog a number of times now with opponents of mythicism dropping in to declare their arguments while at the same time refusing point blank to acknowledge, let alone address, the mythicist responses and answers to those arguments.
This indicates to me that there is no interest on the part of such anti-mythicists in dialogue or reasoned debate. It indicates that the anti-mythicist is interested in defeating mythicism by rhetoric. Avoiding reasoned dialogue is the tactic of one who is seeking an adversarial confrontation and unconditional defeat of “the enemy”.
The circularity of the criterion of embarrassment
To argue that something in a narrative is historical because the only reason it is in the narrative is that it is historical is, well, circular.
To say the baptism is historical because an author was too fearful of being laughed at for not including it in his narrative is truly nothing but question-begging. It is just as easy to say that the author imaginatively created the story to satisfy a range of theological interests and messages. Not only is it “just as easy”, the literary creation argument requires fewer hypotheses to justify. (I have these points in the posts linked above.)
Historical Jesus scholars can get away with arguing for symbolic gospels
So why not mythicists? I recently quoted John Shelby Spong (a former student of Michael Goulder) arguing that the evangelist “Luke” knew he was writing a symbolic narrative and not a literally true historical one. This was in specific reference to the ascension of Jesus.
So why should it be prima face unreasonable to argue that the baptism of Jesus was also intended symbolically? We know the evangelists (canonical and noncanonical) had no qualms about changing, adding and removing stories to fit their theological agendas. “History” was presumably what followed by way of community belief.
There are abundant reasons for reading the baptism of Jesus as having originated as a midrashic or symbolic narrative. We know the evangelists were quite adept at creating anecdotes to demonstrate fulfilments of prophecy. There was a prophecy that Elijah was to precede the coming of the Lord. John the Baptist was said to be — and dressed up as — that Elijah. We know well the repeated biblical theme of God bringing a new creation, a new Israel, out of the waters: the waters of chaos, the land and life emerging from the waters, the flood of Noah and renewed world, the Exodus through the Red Sea as God renewed a people for himself, the renewed Israel once again through the Jordan, the departure of Elijah and the arrival of the one with double his spirit through the waters.
That a new Moses-Elijah figure bringing in a new covenant to displace the old should emerge from the waters of the Jordan is surely the sort of image and creative fiction that one should expect within the literary tradition of Israel.
So John tries to stop Jesus being baptized. Embarrassment? Not at all. This is just like the dialogue Justin Martyr engages in with his literary foil, Trypho. Justin is piecing together a story from OT verses and, aware of implicit contradictions as he does so, he rationalizes each one for the benefit of his readers through his addres.ses to Trypho. (For example, Justin feels it necessary to justify his claim that Jesus made ploughs and yokes as a carpenter: these were to teach the symbols of a righteous life. (Trypho, 88) This rationalization was not compelled by a historical reality that Justin feared to omit in case sceptics laugh at his Jesus for being nothing more than a manual labourer.)
Misusing the tools of historical inquiry
The criterion of embarrassment is normally used as a tool for historians (nonbiblical) to interpret facts and evidence. As far as I am aware only biblical scholars attempt to use it to create facts, to establish what is a historical fact itself.
But a number of biblical scholars know very well that these criteria are too subjective (even circular) to truly establish objective (existential) facts (pp. 42-44 of Scot McKnight’s Jesus and His Death). Jim West (Refreshing Honesty) and Dale C. Allison (Clarity about Circularity) both concede that HJ (historical Jesus) studies rest on circular arguments.
Mythicists are on/wp-admin/post.php?post=16195&action=edit&message=1ly repeating the arguments that are found in the scholarly literature when they reject the use of the criterion of embarrassment (on grounds of its circularity and subjectivity) as a means of establishing the historicity of the baptism of Jesus. The difference is that the mythicists take the arguments to their logical conclusions and apply them more rigorously than many HJ scholars do.
Fantasy worlds and reality
In my opening sentence I linked to comments that informed me of McGrath’s renewed attempt to post an “antidote” to mythicism. I conclude here with an extract from one of those comments:
‘You seem to envisage a fantasy world where Christians never tell their beliefs and stories to anyone else, and reality has no impact or control on their storytelling.’
I live in a fantasy world where Christians write Gospels omitting details like baptisms, and fabricate public events that everybody knew did not happen?
But that is the world of the Gospels- a world where public events were fabricated and where Christians could and did omit baptisms when it suited them.
This is not a fantasy world I have created. As you well know, Christians certainly found it easy to simply cut out from history anything they found embarrassing.
Luke/Acts could even remove all mention of Jesus having James as a brother, so there is no need whatever to accuse me of living in a fantasy world where Christian Gospellers could select the ‘facts’ they wanted to report and omit others.
The fact remains that the embarrassment over the baptism can be traced to when Mark wrote it, thus by the criterion of embarrassment it had not been subject to 30 years of Christian spin-doctoring that would have happened if there had been 30 years of embarrassment.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!