Theologian James McGrath is once again exposing his ignorance — and peddling public ignorance in the process — of both Jesus-mythicism and of the gulf between biblical studies and nonbiblical mainstream historical methods.
His latest foray as far as I am aware is found in his discussion professing to explain what “mythicism” has to say about 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. This is where Paul writes some instructions about the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
The first flag McGrath waves to declare his ignorance of mythicism is when he writes:
What mythicism does with 1 Corinthians 11 is, on the one hand, refuse to allow the slightly later Gospel of Mark to shed light on it, while on the other hand, posits that Paul is referring to a heavenly occurrence in a mythical realm.
Anyone familiar with serious mythicist publications will know that it is no more correct to say that a singular “mythicism” interprets a particular biblical passage in a certain way than it is to say that there is a singular “historicism” that does the same. I have beside me two books by different mythicist authors. They share a common interpretation on one part of this passage, and significantly diverge on the other part. In fact, I know of only one of several mythicist authors who posits that Paul is referring, in part, to an instruction delivered in “a mythical (not heavenly) realm”. If McGrath wishes to take exception to one mythicist in particular he might be more honest and say he is addressing one author and not “mythicism” generically. If he wants to be taken seriously by mythicists he needs to engage with their arguments seriously.
One wonders why an academic, a professor, a public intellectual who presumably believes in professional standards of integrity in public discussion and debate would allow himself to once again demonstrate a failure to engage knowledgeably with a point of view he finds wanting.
One commenter posted in response to McGrath’s post a few quotations I have also posted on this blog.
One was by renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm:
“In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.”
The importance of independent evidence of his actions — the very point of the sentence — is bypassed by McGrath who retorts in part with a rhetorical question declaiming that Jesus studies are also a matter of sifting myth from reality.
I advise . . . . students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions . . . . They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Adapting a sentence by Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 178)
This is the classic avoidance game once again. Hobsbawm’s point, of course, is that independent verification is needed to establish historicity of a claim. McGrath muddies the waters by making a foray into attempting to liken Jesus studies with other historical studies. Of course there really is the common problem of sifting myth from fact. So with a half-truth McGrath has attempted to deflect the reader’s attention from the fact that biblical studies do not at all rely on “independent evidence” to support historicity of the Christian narrative. (And actually it is the view that the gospels are mythical narratives that predicts there would be no independent evidence available to verify the narratives.)
McGrath vacuously adds that it is “the context” that would inform readers that Hobsbawm is referring to sifting myth from fact. Read that sentence again if you missed it, but no, it is not the “context” that McGrath needs to point to — it is the very syntactical construction of the sentence itself that says that. This is an indication that McGrath is attempting once again to pull the wool over readers’ eyes by sounding as if he has a deeper understanding of the passage than the person citing it. But he tries too hard and only shows he has not grasped the very sentence itself.
To attempt to steer readers even further from his failure to be able to address favourably the point of Hobsbawm’s sentence, McGrath derides the very act of quoting as “quote mining”. (This implies one is selecting quotes to make a cheap debating point and remaining without genuine understanding or engagement with the authors from whom the quotations originate. McGrath gives no indication that he is willing to allow “a mythicist” to quote anyone with integrity or understanding. His agenda is to remove mythicism from the discussion table by means of insult.)
He then rhetorically asks if the commenter has read the authors himself while at the same time not giving the slightest hint he himself has ever read them! (I have read them, by the way — several books by Hobsbawm and Liverani in fact. And I have posted a few quotations from those and other authors on this topic because they captured the essence of the arguments and views that formed part of the essential arguments elaborated within the books. McGrath, on the other hand, has demonstrated his lack of awareness of the most fundamental names in modern historiography outside his biblical studies enclave.)
McGrath in the same section again demonstrates his ignorance of “mythicism” by writing of this quotation that it is “popular among mythicists”. I have read quite a few mythicist publications but never once encountered that quote among their ranks. In fact, I know of not a single mythicist who uses the argument implicit in that quotation as a basis for his argument that Jesus was not historical.
Perhaps Thomas L. Thompson is the only scholar I have read who would, according to my understanding, concur with the principle point of that quotation as part of his discussion about the way scholars merely assume from the outset that there is a historical Jesus to study and recreate.
Look who pulls out the interpolation card
Finally, it is of interest to note that while McGrath has attacked mythicists for supposedly (in his uninformed opinion) failing to engage with the mainstream scholarship in biblical studies, he himself in his reply gives no indication that he himself has investigated in any depth the scholarly questions surrounding this Corinthians passage. I’m sure he must have done so, so it is disappointing that he fails to share some of his learning with the public. A wider public audience might be interested to learn that within the scholarly literature one can read a detailed argument that this passage is an interpolation. I know of not a single mythicist who uses the interpolation argument to explain this passage. But nonetheless the argument is to be found in the mainstream scholarly literature. I have detailed the arguments in an older post here.
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