I was about to post a scholar’s comment about the minimalist-maximalist debate when my attention was drawn to a classic illustration of the point I was about to make: McGrath had compared minimalists with mythicists. The comparison is instructive for the way the debate has been addressed. But before I discuss the specifics, let’s bring up front the general picture.
Biblical scholars and students who have commented publicly on the mythicist debate have brought shame upon themselves as intellectuals. They no doubt feel they have said all the right things that needed to be said, and that they speak for their colleagues and have the support of their academic peers. But while attempting to defend their profession they have not spoken as professionals. They have rather exposed themselves as intolerant, fearful and very unpleasant persons towards those who question seriously their core assumptions and methods. Their response to outside challenge has been utterly unlike the professionalism demonstrated by academics in some other disciplines (e.g. biological sciences) have responded to outsiders who have challenged them (e.g. creationists).
To see evidence supporting this claim one only has to look at a handful of responses that have been published online in the last week or so.
Unscholarly “Debate” from Hoffmann and McGrath
Yesterday (my time) Dr R. Joseph Hoffmann wrote:
I have no patience for the amateurism of this trend–not that untrained people like Carrier (how’s his Aramaic?) and Godfrey et al. can’t have opinions, and not that they do not have the right to sniff out the amateurism and parochial interests of scholars who cannot distinguish between apologetic and inquiry. Yet pure skepticism is not a method . . . .
There is more, with much ad hominem innuendo. But let’s be spare with the details. Pure scepticism on the part of Carrier and Godfrey? This is simply blatant misrepresentation, as anyone who has any acquaintance with anything these people have written with a potentially positive lean towards mythicism. Hoffmann will not be able to quote anything from either, I believe, that demonstrates that either of them is a “pure sceptic”. On the contrary, Carrier argues for a method that defies “pure scepticism” and leads towards balanced probabilities based on evidence. Godfrey has attempted to explain the methods of normative historical inquiry in other fields of ancient history (e.g. how historians assess the reality of what is factual and what is speculation) and advocated that the same methods be applied to New Testament studies. He has argued that they have been applied by some scholars to Old Testament studies and the result has been an opening up of a whole new set of facts and constructs requiring study. He is only asking that New Testament historical studies leave behind their precious exceptionalism.
The charge of “pure scepticism” reminds me of the way opposition party politicians attempt to create fear of falling skies among the public over every initiative the government seeks to undertake.
In a similar vein Dr James McGrath recently wrote with some hostility directed at me:
“if we doubt everything that can be doubted in history then there is absolutely nothing left. Nada. Zilch. And so if your stance is that we should abandon the historical enterprise altogether, that’s your prerogative, but I for one think that a cautious, critical approach that tempers excessive skepticism with deductive reasoning is preferable.”
This is another blatant misrepresentation of everything I have stood for and expressed. All my arguments in relation to this question have been positively based on the methods used by other scholars within the mainstream New Testament guild, notably those specializing in literary analysis of the texts, and on the methods used by other historians and that have been adapted by certain scholars of the OT, at least one of whom have extended their methods recently into the area of the NT (i.e. Thomas L. Thompson). And the implicit ad hominem has expressed itself in accusations that most of everything I blog about is ” evil mythicism” when in fact most of it is an expression of my fascination with certain developments in normative biblical scholarship. The halo effect.
On 14th July McGrath wrote:
“The recognition that traditional tools and methods of historical criticism do not provide us with certainty does not demonstrate that the mythicists are right, but that they are every bit as wrong-headed as the fundamentalists on the opposite end of the spectrum.”
Given McGrath’s extensive exchanges with people who have presented positive views of mythicism he has no excuse for making such an ignorant claim, since in all relevant exchanges of which I am aware there has never been a pro-mythicist claim or argument that claims or expects “certainty”. Every mythicist argument of which I am aware that has ever addressed the question has spoken of varying levels of probability. One wonders if McGrath is so personally bigoted in the question that his mind is made up about what mythicists “must think” that he simply cannot listen to or read what they say without thinking they are being either wrong, or if they don’t look wrong then in his mind they must be dishonest about what they are saying or meaning.
Of course there have been much worse comments made by scholars and students both on this blog and elsewhere, but these latest examples are sufficient for now.
Comparing Mythicism with Minimalism
McGrath’s comparison of minimalism with mythicism exposes much about what lies at the heart of the reasons for the tone of his attacks on mythicism.
Let’s look at what Lester L. Grabbe has said about the minimalist-maximalist debate and see what might also apply to the historicist-mythicist debate. One has a right to hope this will be a fruitful exercise since at least one academic here compares mythicism with minimalism.
Lester L. Grabbe in his introductory chapter of Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? addresses the history of the debate between “minimalists” (scholars who only accept as historical what they can infer primarily from the archaeological evidence) and “maximalists” (scholars who value the Bible’s narrative as evidence of the united kingdom in addition to the archaeological evidence) and is particularly concerned about its ugly personal nature and the reasons it has turned out like this.
Unfortunately, the last few years have seen the debate take on a shrillness and ad hominem character that it had not seemed to possess before. The long debate between the Tel Aviv and American archaeologists was made by those who differed in a good natured way but had no personal animosity. The sharp exchanges which have come to the surface since the early 1970s are of a different and more ominous quality (e.g. Dever et al. 1997). The terms ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ began to be pejorative labels, and the term ‘nihilist’ came to be used of certain positions . . . . Some said the ‘minimalists’ were dangerous; others, that they could be safely ignored. The curious anomaly of dangerous people who can be safely ignored serves as a symbol of the unhelpful way in which the debate has moved. One has the sense that it has ceased to be a matter of academic disagreement and has become an emotive and personal issue.
This is hardly a one-sided fight, however; there has been intimation that those who defended the status quo were nothing but biblical fundamentalists, which has not usually been the case. This has led to a hardening of stances and a tendency to defend established positions rather than debating the issues in a genuine desire to understand the other side. But when things become so ugly that some begin to use the term ‘anti-Semitic’ or particular academic positions, one begins to despair of any chance of a proper scholarly exchange. (p. 34, my emphasis)
I suggest one can substitute historicist and mythicist for the words minimalist and maximalist in the above and the message would be just as pertinent. Instead of “anti-Semitic” one might substitute “anti-religious” or “anti-Christian”.
One suspects that there are multiple layers of hostility towards minimalists. As Grabbe says, it is not simply that some scholars are seeking to defend a faith position; many have felt threatened professionally by real or imagined insinuations of their critics. At the same time, there is surely some element among some that consists of a reluctance to confess the mere possibility that all one has dedicated one’s professional life to has been fundamentally misguided.
I suggest the same layers of hostility are at work among historicists towards mythicists. And no doubt, as Grabbe also says, some on the minimalist (mythicist) side have been misguided in their manner of debate, too. When one feels one has nothing to lose it is easy to overstep normal restraints. But I also suspect that among many New Testament scholars there is much more to lose than those devoted to OT studies. The stakes are even higher. Christianity has a cultural function and place far more central to Western people’s lives (including the lives of nonbelievers) than Old Testament religion. So no wonder the emotive and personal dominates even more. First reactions have so often been to dismiss the challenge with insult and ridicule.
So very few (no?) historical Jesus scholars have seriously attempted to engage with mythicists. Maybe a few have published a book (e.g. Eddy and Boyd) but I know of no actual ongoing dialogue. Simply making a statement and leaving it at that is not engaging in a fruitful debate. And if McGrath and others wish to be taken seriously by mythicists (I know of no evidence that suggests they do) they will actually listen to what mythicists say without imputing sinister or deceptive motives if what they hear is not what they expect or if it challenges their preconceptions. Without mutual respect there can be no genuine dialogue.
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