How a biblical scholar uses sleight of hand to argue against mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

McGrath has linked to my post critiquing his comments on the Christ myth proposition and managed to avoid totally the whole point of my post — and the whole point of the particular quotation from Hobsbawm in question. But that is the normal way he “responds” to such critiques.

He also seeks to imply that those who use this quotation are ignorant of Hobsbawm’s arguments and are misrepresenting them, and he does this be showing he has at last got his hands on a copy of a book in which the quote does not appear, even though I have often cited the source of the quotation on my blog.

I have regularly cited the source: From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004). That is not easy to locate anymore, but the article is now available in pdf format at http://www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente/spring_04/Slatta.pdf. (McGrath has asked more than once for evidence and sources (purportedly) to help him understand how nonbiblical historians work, and I have given him sources several times but he seems not to have followed them up.)

McGrath has completely sidestepped the whole point of the quotation and of my previous post, which is the importance of independent evidence for uncovering historicity of narratives.

“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.”

It is instructive that McGrath originally elicited this quotation from one of his commenters by asking point blank:

Evan, Perhaps you can clarify, with reference to historians and historical methodology, how you are using the term “fact.”

Evan then responded with the quotation (and some others) along with his explanation in direct answer to McGrath’s request to clarify what he meant — with reference to historians and historical methodology — how he was using the word “fact”

Unfortunately, McGrath appears to have become derailed at the Evan’s cogent response as requested, and turned on him for “quote mining” and ripping words out of context.

But the quotation was not out of context. It explained exactly how Evan was using the term “fact”, and he did so with reference, as requested, to historians and historical methodology.

First time round McGrath dismissed Hobsbawm’s quote as a commie plot!

McGrath has had a hard time with Hobsbawm. When I first presented his words to him he responded that they were not reliable because they were part of a communist plot to re-write history.

Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

Note also that even then McGrath misused the quotation erroneously thinking that it was arguing that one needed “evidence other than texts” to verify historical facts. I had made no such argument at all, and Hobsbawm was certainly not arguing that. Yet that is how McGrath chose to use the quote.

Now that these words have resurfaced on his own blog he has once again used sleight of hand to misuse them. Just as he earlier attempted to argue that Hobsbawm was arguing a position neither he nor I ever suggested, he now uses the quotation to argue that they say something far less than they actually do. He has a hard time with reading its last sentence: In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.

And that is exactly what we lack in the case of the actions of Jesus. Even his existence is, by the same standards, theoretically open to question, as Albert Schweitzer himself pointed out:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

And that could be why McGrath is clearly determined to get rid of this Hobsbawm quote by any trick in the book, fair or foul, he can find.

To cap off the McGrath’s misapplication of Hobsbawm’s methods, he even compares Hobsbawm’s work with biblical scholar Dale Allison’s on the historical Jesus. Allison, as I showed in a recent post, has the honesty to recognize the circularity of methods used in historical Jesus studies. Will McGrath suggest Hobsbawm’s requirement for independent evidence means that his work is also grounded in circularity? It is, of course, only by means of independent evidence that one can escape circularity.

I discussed this in my previous post about how we can know anyone existed in ancient times, and what is meant by “independent” evidence.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “How a biblical scholar uses sleight of hand to argue against mythicism”

  1. Does he have different definitions for “independent” and “evidence”? Or does he just have some sort of cognitive disorder? As the saying goes we should assume incompetence before malice.

    BTW, Hobsbawm’s introductory chapter to The Invention of Tradition is really fascinating. It’s amazing how quickly fictional tradition can enter a culture’s consciousness and become thought of as ancient and a core part of its heritage.

  2. Neil, I’ll have to add Hobsbawms work to a future project I’m planning on folk lore and early christian text(possible project, the powers that be must aproave). A note, I’m not sure I would expect a historian dealing in pre-modern history to be familier with Hobsbawm. He seems very well regarded, but his work seems to deal in modern history. I’ve never heard him mentioned before you.

    Regarding the aticle you linked too, from Slatta, I doesn’t seem they are arguing that Hobsbawm’s bandits did not exist, but only that the legends surrouding them were unreliable, they couldn’t show the “real” person behind the legend. He mistakenly beleived the heroic tales that suround popular outlaws. In western history this shows up quite a bit and I was just reading how the accounts of Billy the Kid portrayed him in a much better light than his documented actions deserve. I don’t think many NT scholars would argue that there is a lot of unreliable legendary material surounding Jesus. Of a more interesting question, (and perhapes a better topic for my summer research project! THANKS NEIl!), can multiple independent accounts of a bandit, or other poular hero, offer details of their activity?

    1. My recent post about “sleight of hand” in effect responds to your comment here. McGrath routinely avoids engaging with the points of mythicism in a debate and attempts to smokescreen this tactic by launching an offensive on a point of his choosing (usually concocted by a semantic twist and flavoured with denigration and innuendo) that deftly distracts attention from the vacuity of his own position.

  3. I would think a quick perusal of snopes.com would disabuse anyone of the idea that something written a supposed forty years after an event would have to contain some measure of historicity.

    1. I believe we should follow Dr James McGrath’s excellent advice when considering how long a record might be recorded after an event before we ask questions about its trustworthiness. He has directed our attention to a Wikipedia article on historical method and advised his readers to read the references on which it is based. One of those references was a book by Garraghan in which he states that even twenty years is long enough for tendentious fabrications to be invented:

      On page 264 of the cited “A Guide to Historical Method” Garraghan writes (with my emphasis):

      It is typical of popular tradition that it is first heard of long after the time when the events it reports are supposed to have occurred. Almost invariably there is a gap, more or less broad, between the events and their first appearance in recorded history. Such a gap occurring in the case of any report is enough to make it suspect from the start. Instances of such reports, found on examination to be unverified, are without number. Thus, unaccountably tardy first-mention of them in written record of any kind is a major argument used by critics in discrediting such one-time general beliefs as the False Decretals, the Popess Joan, the authenticity of the reputed works of Denis the Areopagite. Again, no contemporary biographer of St. Thomas of Canterbury records that his mother was a Saracen princess whom his father had married in the Holy Land.—– John Morris, “Legends about St. Thomas,” The Life and Martyrdom of St. Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury ( 2d ed., London, 1885), 523-25.

      That Luther committed suicide is a story first heard of some twenty years after his death, when it began to be circulated by persons hostile to his memory.—– H. Grisar, Martin Luther, his Life and Work, 57578.

      McGrath’s recommended reading to help us understand historical method does not even allow a gap of 20 years, let alone 40.

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