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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14 thoughts on “More charlantry from a biblical professor on mythicism”
McG accuses mythicists of eisegesis — a biased and personal reading of scripture — in a post wherein he demonstrates his own biased and personal reading of material (both mythicist and mainstream historical publications) that he has not read.
I had to limit what I covered in the post, but as you rightly note, there is so much more that is outright shonky in his post yet that he seems to think will impress lay readers by virtue of his academic status.
If a mythicist argued that a text did not mean what it says, but found psychological explanations to explain away its plain and obvious meaning, McGrath would sneer. But when he does exactly the same in his denial of the plain meaning (supported many times over across a number of letters) that Paul’s knowledge of Christ was by spiritual revelation alone, that is called a scholarly process.
But theologians belong belong to an academic community along with biologists and geophysicists, so he demands the same respect for the “learned opinions” of theologians as the public gives astrophysicists.
“If he wants to be taken seriously by mythicists ….”
I’m afraid that ship has sailed a long time ago.
I know. I twitched badly when I wrote that.
Neil, I think you underestimate your importance to mythacism. I hadn’t mentioned it earlier because I didn’t want to give you a big head, but when Steph was taking notes on your blog, I thought it was a very good place to go for studying mythacism. You are one of the biggest promoters of the theories. You site comes up readily in any Google search of the subject. If it were not for people like you, there would be no mythacist discussion.
Of course you should be aware that it is your quoting of Hobsbawm that McGrath is referring to and the popularity of the Corinthians discussion is the result of the internet enthusiast, not the professional theorist, who are just the thin gilding of the mythacist “movement”. If it were not for people like you, I don’t think any scholars one would write books challenging the Christ myth theory. it isn’t like the DaVinci Code or the 2012 doomsday that have bestselling books and hit movies to promote them to a mass audience, it is the hard work of people like you and the guys at Jesusneverexisted that have passed this into the popular imagination.
Concerning the interpolation, I don’t think a professor does his students any good by uncritically passing along every idea that has been proposed. If you had to learn every position taken, I doubt you would learn anything of value by the time you graduated.
On quote mining, I did think the list of quotes that was given was rather out of place in the discussion, kind of a “so, and you point is?” moment.
Mike the list of quotes was at the request of Dr. McGrath. He stated, “Evan, Perhaps you can clarify, with reference to historians and historical methodology, how you are using the term “fact.”
I should have noted that and remarked upon it, too. But that is the usual way McGrath operates. He has thrown out challenges to me, too, in the past, and when I responded in detail he simply walked away (e.g. in taking up the challenge to respond to a scholar like E.P. Sanders) or blatantly twisted my words (e.g. to say that I was biased towards philosophers and playwrights against the bible authors when I was addressing the principle of ideologically independent sources).
He is not an honest intelocuteur. Every school ground has at least one who finds it necessary to make his mark by ridicule and intellectual bullying rather than respectful dialogue.
That’s not what I’m suggesting. As a student I relished those moments when a lecturer would contextualize her presentation by pointing out to us where her ideas fit in the wider field. It is not necessary to learn every other position at that point, but to simply be aware of the history of an idea and alternative views that are out there. Now that kinda impressed me as an honest and worthwhile learning introduction to any new topic.
Decent scholarly books do the same thing. It may not always be appropriate to discuss every previous or alternative view point in depth, but to at least acknowledge them for the audience’s benefit is treating the audience with respect.
I wish a lot more biblical scholars would have more respect for their lay audiences.
One day these sorts of questions will be a real worry for me, and i think that you have to look at how much of the community is going with an idea,(a hard thing to guage really)and if you personally think it is valid. I mean if i think an idea held by one scholar is correct, I’ll teach that, I’ll say it isn’t the majority and why, but you know, it is for each individual to see what makes sense to them. But if an idea is held by only a small minority and I don’t think it has merit, then I think there are more important things to discus than all the opinions held by a similar % of scholars. If a sizable minority hold a position sure, say there are also these opinions, but mentioning to many positions gives the false idea that there is no consensus. It is like the global warming issue. whenever you put up a scientist who believes it vs. one who thinks everything is fine, you give the false impression that it is a 50/50 position.
It didn’t clarify. It just seemed squeezed in and didn’t connect well with what you were discusing earlier. I do that occasionaly when someone tells me a short essay I’m writing should include a quote. I write the essay and then shoe horn a quote that kinda sounds like what I was talking about. It sticks out like a sore thumb and is confusing.
I thought it clarified beautifully, Evan. You cited respected practitioners of historiography on the issue of method, and showed what a sampled consensus of historians take the word “fact” to mean. I’m not sure what Mike is even talking about here when he calls it “squeezed in”. There honestly was not a way for those quotes to be any more germane, except perhaps by sophomorically saying “Here is a smattering of opinions from respected historians, since you asked for it.” That seems a little like the rubric we use for essays in elementary school, though, if you ask me.
McGrath is a known apologist. He should simply be ignored. If you take him seriously, you give him more attention than he deserves.
McGrath has responded to this post on his blog with the usual sleight of hand, and I have replied here.