Mythicism and Peer Review

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by Neil Godfrey

In response to Dr James McGrath’s post on Mythicism and Peer Review Earl Doherty wrote the following:

Jim, you are a piece of work. I only wish that your mindless animosity toward the idea that, just possibly, the Christian record could represent something which two thousand years of hidebound and confessionally-driven tradition could never have brought itself to envision, was a rarity. But you are legion, and such animosity is hardly a dispassionate, scientifically founded position. Your counters to my arguments have been consistently naïve and pathetically lame, misunderstanding and misrepresenting my case, loaded with emotional prejudice and just about every fallacy in the book. And you’ve now added that voice to the farcical question of peer review.

This idea of “peer” review is a joke in NT scholarship. The latter is a closed and privileged club, with boundaries that cannot be crossed (witness the failure of The Jesus Project), and no journal or publisher within that field is going to give mythicism the time of day. There would be no more possibility of an unbiased and effective review of a mythicist’s work than what you’ve given mine, and mythicists know that. You know it as well. The very idea that centuries of scholarship could have been based on a serious misinterpretation of the record is so abhorrent even to so-called critical scholars (there may be the rare exception, Mack or Ludemann for example), that no honest review is possible. You’ve shown that. And considering that people like you represent a good part of the general readership of such journals and publications, no journal or publication would risk the firestorm they would create in accepting and publishing mythicist viewpoints.

An interested party (not a mythicist) in the U.S. several years ago offered The Fourth R publication of Westar/the Jesus Seminar a donation of $5000 if they would devote part of an issue to mythicism, consisting of an article by myself presenting my case and a rebuttal article by any scholar of their own choosing. They turned it down. The editor claimed, “No one who believes Jesus never existed can be persuaded otherwise!” (Which, of course, was not the purpose, but talk about pots and kettles!) And the subject was declared as of no interest (read: too objectionable) to its readership. But that’s not the point. Here was a good (and profitable) opportunity for historicism to deal a death blow to its long-term nemesis, or at least to trash it the way it has always been claimed can be done so easily. Here was a chance to give mythicism that “peer review” you would like to see it given. I guess you would consider as legitimate peer review an out and out denial of a voice to the very topic itself! (After all, you’ve said that you refuse to present any positive element of my case since it would supposedly grant it some kind of legitimacy. That’s honest ‘peer review’?)

This business of demanding of mythicists that they be peer reviewed, and then taunted and consigned to fraud and charlatanry when they are not, is as transparent as they come. Until the concept of Jesus being a non-historical character is regarded as a legitimate offering within the field of NT study and is addressed on that basis (even if argued against, which is equally legitimate), the idea of peer review of mythicism is an oxymoron, and we all know it. You and yours demand peer review because you know it is simply not possible. It is blatantly designed to serve your own purposes, which is the height of duplicity on your part.

When I commented that “maybe I’ll finally get my ‘peer review’,” I was quite obviously being ironic and sarcastic. The only “review” I would ever get from any of the “peers” you have in mind would be one by someone who approaches my book from the a priori position of condemning and rejecting it and sets out to trash it in the most unabashedly biased way. Just as you yourself have approached your review of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man.

So let’s not hear any more about the sham that is the idea of ‘peer review’. Having defined mythicism as charlatanry, having closed and barred the gates of your discipline to any consideration of Jesus not being an historical figure, having nominated as the only allowable “peers” those with predeterminedly hostile views toward the very idea, you’ve loaded the deck and then think to blame and condemn us for failing to make any headway in the game. If you can’t see the utter dishonesty in that kind of farce, and the disgrace it is to the concept of genuine and open-minded scholarship, you are beneath contempt.

McGrath replied as per usual, to which Doherty added:

Jim says: “I understand that you take the criticisms of your ideas personally…”

No, because what is thrown at me here is not “criticism.” In a scholarly context, “criticism” is—or should be—defined as “the act or occupation of analyzing and evaluating a literary or artistic work” (one of the definitions in Webster’s College Dictionary). “Analyzing and evaluating” in an honest and objective fashion backed by evidence and scholarly argumentation—rather than foaming at the mouth with preconceived hostility, blanket condemnation and ad hominem attacks. Let’s look at some of the ‘criticisms’ voiced here since my earlier posting:

“Bart (as you & I did) will be very unlikely to accept Doherty’s mythicist non-sense which is based on dubious, weak, biased & convoluted so-called interpretations.” (Bernard)

Objective? Informative? Serious scholarly tone and integrity backed up by substance? Hardly.

“Your stance on peer review in history and religious studies is much like the stance of creationists on peer review in the natural sciences” (Jim)

Do you think that your review of my book thus far is on a par with that of respected and renowned evolutionary scientists when dealing with creationism? I have never seen them adopting a tone anything like yours, and they certainly back up their defense of evolution by copious and incontrovertible evidence for evolution itself, as well as clearly and powerfully demonstrate the flaws of the creationist ‘case’. Where is your copious and incontrovertible evidence for historicism? “Brother of the Lord can only mean one thing”? LOL! Where is your powerful demonstration of the flaws of mythicism? Associating it with creationism? Appeals to authority? “Doherty deviously postpones contrary evidence”? Where is the sophisticated and convincing rebuttal? “Paul doesn’t mention anything about Jesus’ life and teaching because everyone already knew every detail of it”? Where the integrity? Misrepresenting or ignoring vast swaths of my argument because you don’t want to confer the slightest legitimacy on a theory you viscerally despise? The comparison with creationists is not only invalid on so many levels, it is simply a blatant attempt to manufacture guilt by false association.

“Looking at Doherty’s latest posting, all I can say is: rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric …” (Bernard)

This is counter-argument rebutting my presentation of Jim’s attitude toward peer review for mythicism and its basic dishonesty? Not a shred of it. All bluster and empty words.

“Hell hath no fury like a Mythicist scorned.” (Just Sayin’)

Moderately clever, but contributing nothing except derision.

“I for one am reassured by the unwillingness even of a periodical like The Fourth R to accept bribes in exchange for giving a platform to non-scholarly ideas, even with an opportunity for rebuttal.” (Jim)

A “bribe” to urge a magazine in the field to consider the pros and cons of a longstanding (almost two centuries) minority scholarly conclusion in their own discipline? A “bribe” to ask a leading voice in critical scholarship to address a persistent idea which has been gaining credence and popularity on the public scene, if only to check its spread? Or is it more likely a burying of one’s head in the sand, a fear to rock the boat and jeopardize interests that are anything but scholarly, a realization that their defense against mythicism has about as much substance as the emperor’s new clothes? How does one know that the ideas are non-scholarly if they are never given voice and attention by those who allegedly can decide and demonstrate their scholarly quality or lack of it?

The Fourth R’s refusal to ‘peer review’ mythicism and Jim’s praising of their decision makes a mockery of his demand that mythicism submit to peer review when those “peers” refuse to do so and he supports them. It reveals the legitimacy of everything I said in my earlier post about the farce that the peer review issue raised by Jim really is.

I don’t know if you hacks realize the depth of scholarly depravity to which you have sunk. If we still operated like the Middle Ages, mythicists would not simply be condemned out of hand and treated as pariahs, they would be burned at the stake; and I have no doubt you guys would cheerfully light the kindling. Essentially, you are no better than a milder version of the Inquisition, with no greater scholarly honor or integrity involved than we would accord to the Dominicans, who refused to consider contrary evidence, gave no voice to any witnesses to support the accused, whose idea of rationality was to torture the victim to extract the “truth”, and consigned the condemned heretic to the ultimate wilderness. Not to mention burning their writings. Jim’s views and approach to his review of my book has as much to do with reasoned and capable rebuttal to mythicism as the Pope’s Hounds exercised in rooting out heresy and saving the vested interests of the Catholic Church.

Are any of you familiar with the American composer Charles Ives’ short orchestral piece called “The Unanswered Question”? A questing and questioning trumpet asks a calm and serious question. A chorus of five flutes at first complacently answers. Clearly inadequately, since the trumpet must repeat its question, though it maintains its equanimity. With each repeat of the question (about five times), the flute chorus becomes more and more agitated, condemnatory, it increasingly scoffs and scorns. In the end it is literally foaming at the mouth, wild-eyed with derision. (Ives’ talents are astonishing in creating his musical effects.) That is what historicism, and particularly the flute chorus here, has increasingly become, abdicating any responsibility (or ability) to address an honest and serious questioning, rooted in the evidence, of the historical basis of Christianity, indulging instead in vacuous ridicule and demonization, and an assigning of all heretics to a figurative stake, a fate pre-judged for them from the beginning.

You are not even capable of being ashamed of yourselves.




My own comment on academic publishing: I know something of the publishing world for academic institutions, having worked in academic libraries for quite a few years now. Even though academics might be appointed to editorial boards of publishers, the bottom line is always the $. Publishers are a business, and there is no way they will risk any tarnishing of their image that might undermine their future respectability among their target funders. So even if a few editors were prepared to give mythicism a go they would have to convince the ones who are making the money from the publication. So it is not only a question of academics themselves not wishing to risk a questionable reputation among their peers by espousing a view that is not approved by the guild. The publishing industry itself ensures that it publishes only material that will enhance its image according to the core values and beliefs of their market.

It is amusing also to watch the way publishers flatter the egos of academics by various flatteries and little rewards in return for reviewing books and agreeing to publish for them — and how so often the academic fails to see how they are being manipulated for someone else’s $ benefit. Academic editors of journals really have been known to be over-ridden on rare occasions by the business end — just often enough to make it clear who really is in charge!

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Mythicism and Peer Review”

  1. Neil,

    I’m a lurker on your blog (first-time poster) and would like to thank you for many excellent articles. You and Mr. Doherty (among others) has been a great help to me getting a deeper understanding of the origins of Christianity and I was truly impressed with “The Jesus Puzzle”.

    With that said, I want to ask something that has puzzled me, and a commentary by Gakuseidon brought it up spot on:

    “It does seem that those cheering you on the sidelines, are in fact happy to stay on the sidelines. Everyone — including yourself — appears to be waiting for someone else to come in and push the work. But if you aren’t going to engage modern scholarship, and no-one else is going to engage scholarship, why blame scholarship for ignoring you? How the heck are they going to know you exist?

    Write an article for peer-review publication. Remove all your responses to Christian arguments and apologetics. Even if it doesn’t published, at least you’ll have something written for a scholarly audience.”

    Now, I am sure Mr. Doherty is correct that the orthodox NT scholarship community is unwilling to give mythicists a fair shot (although I think he plays right into his adversaries’ hands by comparing them to the Middle Age Inquisition), but I truly fail to understand why Mr. Doherty does not at least write (and self-publish on the web) a scholarly paper. Even if it does not get published in a “reputable” journal today, it may very well be that history will eventually prove him right and provide a prominent place for him in NT scholarship. But if he wants his place in history he has to fight for it, no?

    You can obviously not answer for Mr. Doherty, but maybe you or someone can help me out here? Why does no one at least *try* to push the work in the “orthodox” venues?

    1. And just what is my website, including a ‘summary’ article written for publication in a scholarly journal out of Drew University–at the time, though I’m not sure what has become of it lately, The Journal of Higher Criticism (which has been on my website as well for many years) if not a “scholarly paper”?

      And tellingly, the Journal of Higher Criticism (to which many reputable scholars contributed, not just mythicists) enjoyed its share of dismissal as unacceptable to mainstream NT academia and its supporters as too radical, illustrating the Catch 22 nature of McGrath & Co.’s (including Gakusei Don’s) treatment of mythicism and the farce of his demands for ‘proper’ peer review. The only peers acceptable to them for submission are those which they expect will reject any submission. And they will use that rejection to “prove their point” against mythicism as though it was unbiased and scholarship-based and has nothing to do with those peers’ own closed-minded prejudice and protection of their own turf. Do you think I or any other mythicist is going to walk with open eyes into a trap like that?

      That type of set-up is nothing short of contemptible, and a betrayal of any concept of scholarship. And by the way, I see no reason why in the face of the rabid and shit-laden garbage I and other mythicists get thrown at them without shame, that I can’t throw a few punches of my own. My comparison of the guild, at least as represented on the Matrix, with the Inquisition was spot on. Anyone following McGrath’s zealotic rants against my book and mythicism in general knows that reasoned “dialogue” on the subject is as impossible as expecting it from Torquemada.

      1. It reminds me more of Kafka. You need to do something that you’re not allowed to do, and the paths to find out what you’re supposed to do are obstructed. Yet the fault lies with you, because you’re not following the rules. Unfortunately, they can’t tell you what those rules are, because it’s against the rules. They would love to explain how very wrong you are, but not right now.

        Please come back tomorrow, Herr K. We can’t help you today.

      2. Concluding a surreal tirade against me and Steven Carr Stephanie Fisher posted on Dr Hoffmann’s New Oxonian blog a thought that is not far removed from the medieval mentality:

        I suggest we have a bonfire and attract all the ‘tics’ to a bright flaming fire.

        How is reasoned discussion and critical argument possible with people who think like that?

      3. Mr. Doherty,

        Thank you very much for your reply. While I’m nothing more than an interested layman, I want you to know that “The Jesus Puzzle” truly blew me away.

        I am not even remotely part of the NT scholarship community and have only a superficial understanding of the inner workings of it and the peer review process. However, after reading Carrier’s review and your reply, where you mostly acknowledged his critiques (virtually all of them minor), I came away with the impression that you did not put any priority to fixing and expanding your theory to fit “scholarly” demands. You also write on your web page that you have chosen not to pursue the academic route (I was now unable to find the actual quote). This has indeed puzzled me, and your reply helps me somewhat, but not fully, to understand your “strategy”.

        And it is not that you are commiting a faux pas by hitting back, it is purely a question of tactics. It makes it so much easier for your opponents to (unfairly) paint you as an unhinged kook. Yes, it sucks, and yes, it is frustrating not to hit back, but IMHO it is the most efficient way to fight the fight. And I strongly suspect that Dr. McGrath will eventually be forgotten, while your theory will be accepted as a highly plausible explanation of the origins of Christianity by mainstream scholarship in the future.

        Best of luck to you.

  2. Earl,

    You and your peers need to take Mythicism out of NT Scholarship and, instead, pursue it within the legitimate historical community. Apart from theological questions, there is nothing that NT Scholarship can do for you, as they are not, for the most part, actual historians. That much, at least, is obvious.

  3. It is not a question of Earl Doherty not engaging the scholarship or the community. The fact is clearly the other way around: the scholarly community has no wish to engage Earl. Recall Earl Doherty’s reception among many of the scholarly community on Crosstalk. Recall the numbers of times Earl has sought input and responses from scholars and their declining to respond. When one finally does respond he justifies suppressing the actual arguments of Earl for fear he will be seen to give them legitimacy. When I jump in to fill the gap and explain what those arguments are I am accused of being a charlatan for making them sound plausible. I am also called “a disciple”, yet when I express a variant opinion then “mythicism” is attacked for being “all over the shop”. Even if I bring out third party evidence that supports Doherty’s explanations, or even if I discuss a scholarly view that throws light on Gospel origins but is by no means “mythicist” (though it can be used as part of an argument explaining Christianity without a historical Jesus) — then even that evidence is attacked even though it is merely citing mainstream scholarly views. One is quite allowed to use scholarship but only so long as one does not use it to challenge the paradigm.

    If Doherty is bitter then I see no room for justifiable anger and telling it like it is. Where are the voices among McGrath’s peers attempting to pull him up for his unprofessional and unscholarly posts? Tom Verenna occasionally registers a very mild passing frown and that’s about it.

    There is also little to be gained by “addressing the historian’s community”. Other historical disciplines have left Christian origins to the theologians and defer to them on this. Michael Grant, for example, merely paraphrases their works. And the historians come from the same cultural bed as many of the theologians anyway.

    But if there is any hope on the horizon, I do have some reasons to believe there are at least a handful of other biblical scholars who are sympathetic to mythicism but for their own professional reputations avoid directly tackling the issue in public forums.

    And for the record — in response to GDon’s nonsense about how no-one has been particularly enthused by Doherty’s arguments — I certainly do find his argument very persuasive. There are a number of areas where I disagree, but there would be something wrong if any reader was completely in synch with every word on 800 pages. But that does not change the fact that I am persuaded Doherty’s case is very strong and probable. My own particular interest is in approaching Christian origins from another angle entirely, so of course there are a few areas where I don’t fall completely within Doherty’s explanations of things. But for this to be interpreted as my not being interested in Doherty’s idea or not really caring enough about it to lay aside my own interests and give myself over to crusading for Doherty’s views is rubbish. The fact that I am prepared to defend Doherty’s words and arguments against McGrath — even though in some cases I might have alternative views myself — should be enough to belie that sort of nonsense.

  4. It is interesting to see how mainstream scholars are edging towards mythicist ideas.


    ‘The old idea that exalted epithets such as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High” applied to Jesus reflect Greco-Roman thinking, rather than Jewish thinking, has been seriously challenged by the Aramaic fragment, 4Q246, in which an eschatological figure is described with these very terms. Moreover, the idea of a Messiah figure, whose appearance brings healing, resurrection of the dead, and good news for the poor—concepts that define the identity and ministry of Jesus—is now attested in 4Q521. Indeed, the idea of a figure who acts in the very place of Yahweh himself, in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 and an expected eschatological jubilee, is attested in 11QMelchizedek.’

    Curiously James McGrath claims all Messiah figures were expected to be conquering kings.

    And Mike Wilson is adamant that no Jew could have thought of a figure acting in the very place of Yahweh himself (unless that figure was a crucified criminal, if I understand Mike correctly. )

    It is interesting that mainstream scholars claim that mythical eschatological figures, people who never actually existed, are described in the same terms applied to Jesus.

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