Mark Goodacre on Jesus mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

I have finally caught up with Mark Goodacre’s podcast “Did Jesus Exist?”

For the benefit of others who don’t always find the time or opportunity to listen to a podcast and whose interests may overlap with some of mine here are some of the points he makes.

He asks of a mythicist (Timothy Freke):

Was it just Jesus as a first century figure that he was sceptical about or was he sceptical about other figures that are mentioned by the sources of the first century, by people like Josephus and so on? Is he sceptical about the existence of Herod or Caiaphas or Pilate or some of these characters.

In a follow up comment to the podcast Mark Goodacre made explicit the intent of his question:

When I put the question to Tim Freke, I was more interested in finding out if he was also sceptical about the existence of other first century figures from that region than anything else. In other words, I was trying to get to the root of the hyper-scepticism. Is it a general scepticism about ancient history and the limits of our knowledge, or is it something else?

Goodacre’s question assumes that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to what we find for other figures in ancient history generally. (I have argued that if this were the case there would be no debate about the existence of Jesus at all.) It also infers that there is something wrong with the one asking the question, but I return to this at the end of the post.

A bit of a problem

Goodacre acknowledges the obvious difference between those figures of whom we can expect material remains testifying and those whom we know entirely from later literary accounts:

And of course there is a bit of a problem with that in that these kind of characters [i.e. Herod or Caiaphas or Pilate] do leave a bit more than just a literary trace . . . .

Goodacre attempts to explain the difficulty with the evidence for Jesus. He begins by suggesting that the root of the difficulty lies in the nature of our evidence for historicity of ancient figures generally, but then leads us to see something distinctive about the nature of our evidence for Jesus:

And this is the difficulty when you’re doing ancient history that figures like Jesus only survive in the memories of those that talk about them and those memories generate traditions and the traditions feed into things that ultimately become the literary records.

Now of course the problem then about dealing with memory is that memories are so easily influenced, we might even say contaminated by other things. When you look back on someone’s life you start describing them in terms of the reputation that they have and the assessment of their character.

And in Jesus’s case nobody was able in the period when they were talking about him in the 30’s and the 40’s and 50’s nobody was able to say these things without thinking about his resurrection. So very quickly the historical Jesus becomes the Christ of faith. The Lord that’s proclaimed by the church isn’t simply this person that was walking around in Galilee in the first century but actually also becomes the exalted Christ. And that influences the way that they talk about the character and that then makes the historians’ job really difficult.

There’s a certain vagueness here, I think, when one begins taking the argument to “memories” being contaminated. That is true of whatever lies behind most records of most periods of history. There are other arguments to be made but let’s continue with the flow of the podcast.

The invitation to mythicists:

And the thing is this is the invitation I think to the mythicists because they rightly see all this rather exalted language about Jesus and I think they wrongly infer from that that the exalted language is absolutely key in a way that it sort of rules out a kind of historical existence for the figure.

Where we should side with the mythicists:

One of the things I think we should do is side with the mythicists to the extent that they are pointing out something important which is just how early and how striking some of the exalted language about Jesus is. Because when you look at this it is amazing that within a decade or so of Jesus’s death you’ve got people talking about him as Lord and Christ and King of the Cosmos and so on.

On the other hand it is argued that we can see when mythical language is attached to historical figures because the historical persons are clearly evident and the mythical trappings are adornment and do not consist of the entire person.

Beginning with Paul:

The mythicist case often begins with Paul and they notice the character that he talks about is a kind of cosmic redeemer,  a heavenly figure, his name is Christ, Christ Jesus, Lord Jesus Christ and he still reigns in heaven and he’s going to be worshiped by everyone. And all of this is of course true. As also is the point that often gets made that Paul doesn’t really tell us much as we would like to know.

I think the mythicist argument begins more generally with the New Testament epistles generally, and though of course Paul is the dominant one, this should not be overlooked.

Mark Goodacre then plays a segment of a talk by mythicist author G. A. Wells. Refreshingly in a topic that is usually stained by ridicule and ill-disguised contempt Goodacre mentions that he met Wells and had an enjoyable conversation with him.

In the segment played Wells points out that in Paul’s writings we find no mention of:

  • parents of Jesus,
  • his place of birth
  • where Jesus lived
  • or even when he lived
  • the trial before Pilate
  • nor Jerusalem as place of execution
  • John the Baptist
  • Judas Iscariot
  • Peter’s denial

Goodacre’s response is the standard one — that Paul’s letters are occasional writings. We would not expect to find references to many of these things given the nature of the letters. (But compare Doherty’s reply to this regular claim found in the final three paragraphs on this page. He argues that reference to Jesus’ life is exactly what one would expect in many instances in those letters.)

Goodacre further responds with the other standard response: we often underestimate how much Jesus tradition really is found in Paul’s letters.

So for example, Paul knew people who knew Jesus. He may not mention Peter’s denial but he does mention Peter lots of times.

Further, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians are relatively rich in Jesus tradition. Example, 1 Thessalonians links Jesus’ death with Judea.

The problem is, Goodacre explains, that since we are so familiar with the Gospels, the Gospels set up a certain expectation (an “unreasonable expectation”) when we come to read Paul.

Keeps scholars honest

I like the work of the mythicists, though, in many ways, and I think that one of the reasons that it’s useful is that it keeps people like me honest. I think it’s always good as a scholar to be challenged about  these things and to say to ourselves, Well, why is it that we are persuaded in the case of Jesus for example he was an historical figure?

Goodacre says that he no longer argues the way he used to with respect to the evidence of Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius. This is since someone pointed out to him that all they demonstrate is that their sources are people who believed Jesus was a historical figure.

My problem with the mythicists

Goodacre returns to the theme with which he began his podcast that was encapsulated in his question to Tim Freke:

My problem with the mythicists is that they have a scepticism that isn’t a healthy scepticism. It’s not a kind of balanced or reasonable kind of scepticism. Because I think that in the Jesus who walks the pages of the Gospels we do occasionally glimpse the contours of a man who walked on Galilee, a distinctive a particular man who has a particular kind of profile And that’s not to accept blindly what’s in the gospels . . .

I like to explore and be open about historical questions but I think we should be wary of the kind of hyper-scepticism which begins from a position of thinking that we must know absolutely nothing.

The denial of the existence of a figure like Jesus simply puts a kind of intolerable burden on the texts that we are studying. After all, these are texts in which there are other characters who had historical existence.

John the Baptist is there in these texts as somebody we don’t seriously doubt the existence of . . . .

If we start denying the existence of Jesus then we really have to deny also not only the existence of John the Baptist but also Herod Antipas, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas, Herodias, Peter, John, James, the list just keeps going on. . . .

This is disappointing. It sidesteps the intellectual arguments and falls back on finding fault with the mindset of the one asking the question. It is “unhealthy”.

This returns me to my recent post in which I discussed the different ways we can believe in the historicity of Jesus (or otherwise) and the power and function of “public knowledge” in this respect.

I trust that few would suggest that Albert Schweitzer’s question was “unhealthy” when he wrote:

More than once in the writings directed against [a mythicist] it is stated that even what is self-evident can nevertheless be made clear only if the will is there to be swayed by the evidence available. The writers call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’, or even on the ‘aesthetic feeling’ of the man whose views they are opposing, that is, if they do not console themselves with the idea that nothing can be revealed to him who will not see.

In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him 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.

So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask for in an opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical.(p.402 of Quest, my emphasis and formatting)

I suggest that for most (maybe even all) other persons widely assumed to be assuredly historical in ancient times our confidence derives from sources for which historians do have a range of controls that are singularly lacking in the case of Jesus. Perhaps even many historians themselves have not stopped to think about this question in depth for many ancient persons — hence the point of my recent post about the role of “public knowledge”. And in those cases where such controls are lacking or minimal we will find names of persons whose historicity is simply not an issue. It doesn’t matter if Pythagoras was historical or not. It’s not an issue.

There is no intolerable burden placed on texts. The same standard applied to all (and one I’ve discussed many times and won’t bore readers with again, though the Schweitzer quote points to it) — this same standard yields consistent results for all.

Unfortunately one of those figures happens to be a major cultural icon and resists being treated equally with other historical or nonhistorical or maybe-historical figures. We are weaned off Santa Claus very young. No, I don’t mean that the evidence for Jesus is comparable with the evidence for Santa! What I am saying is that it is harder to let go of one who has been the centre of our lives, careers, life-styles, very often even our personal and family well-being.

Personally I find the question of the historicity of Jesus to be essentially a non-issue too. What is of importance to me is the origin of Christianity. Why narrow that inquiry by demanding only one possible explanation that has always relied on ‘unknowns’ and ‘mysteries’ as part of its answer and on ad hominem (even when it is not malicious) and long-addressed stock responses as part of its defence.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Mark Goodacre on Jesus mythicism”

  1. If we start denying the existence of Jesus then we really have to deny also not only the existence of John the Baptist but also Herod Antipas, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas, Herodias, Peter, John, James, the list just keeps going on

    As far as I know, Herod Antipas, Pilate, Anna, Caiaphas, and Herodias all have independent attribution aside from early Christianity. Hyper-skepticism would be to think that just because all we have are written texts, that we can’t trust the sources. Of course, this doesn’t actually describe why most of us are unsure of or doubt the existence of Jesus. It’s a basic axiom of critical inquiry to lower the probability of some assertion if there is a lack of independent corroboration. That’s not “hyper-skepticism”, that’s plain old skepticism.

  2. Schweitzer again:

    “Those who are fond of talkng about negative theology can find their account here. There is nothing more negative than the results of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.

    The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb.”

  3. I caught this a while ago and I found it at once both the most reasonable response directly to mythicism by an NT studies insider and terribly disappointing. They just seem incapable of getting the point. One of the main things that lend confidence to other ancient figures known only from literary sources is specifically that they are incidental figures in texts that do not make them the main focus. And the very fact that this type of mention for Jesus had to be fabricated or at the least heavily embellished (the Testimonium) tells us that 3rd and 4th century apologists perceived the lack.

    As in the famous Schweitzer quote: that “one source of tradition” is the main reason for skepticism. It’s not just the startling and startlingly early exalted language being applied to a marginal and actually despicable person (for having suffered the ultimate penalty) that Goodacre alludes to; it’s that the figure first appears in such texts as have this exalted language as their primary mode of expression. “External controls” comes down to: was anybody in the 1st century inclined to simply note that such a person did something, or knew someone, or taght such and such, in an otherwise sober narrative with other concerns (than Jesus)? Okay, no. Marginal figure, peasant, we can’t expect… etc. The “intolerable burden” rests on our texts already then. Only by assuming they speak of a historical person can they be used to reconstruct details of his life and teaching. Goodacre should start by justifying that assumption, because it’s not the case that the only alternative is conversely to assume they are fictional and symbolic narratives. One could suspend judgment entirely in advance of actually studying the texts, right?

    1. CJ I think you make a very strong point. It is clear that the lack of documentary evidence for Jesus and Paul was perceived as a serious problem by 2nd and 3rd century Christians or there wouldn’t have been forged correspondences written in their names. The forged letters between Jesus and Abgar and the forged letters between Paul and Seneca show that this lack was felt acutely by some Christians. Since we know that the letters of Peter in the NT are also forgeries, this means that we have at least some forged documents in the names of all the church fathers. This seems to suggest what still seems to me to be the best explanation for Xian origins: That the church we now know as Christianity started in the second century and that the orthodox created a first century past that they alone could control and fabricated the apostolic succession to cement their authority.

  4. In the first quote you cite from Goodacre there is an explicit assumption that JC was historical.
    Its a ‘given’ eg the reference to the resurrection as if undisputed fact, the assumption that the Pete of Paul’s writings is the same Pete as in the gospels etc.
    I find it strange, yeah that’s naive I know, that someone who can so ably dispute the presumption of Q, who has earned the description of a “Q sceptic’ can so easily fall prey to a presumption in a related issue that necessarily transgresses the demand for evidence.
    I suppose, without knowing Goodacre, that belief in his christianity is not threatened by “Q scepticism” but scepticism about the historicity, or otherwise, of alleged JC is fundamental to his faith and belief as a christian.
    I remember, correctly I hope, that once Michael Goulder, one of the early “Q sceptics and an intellectual mentor of Goodacre so I believe, started questioning his faith as a result of that scepticism he embarked along a road that lead to his eventual denial of his original faith.
    Courageous step.

    1. mcduff: “…someone who can so ably dispute the presumption of Q…”

      That’s why I hold out hope for Dr. Goodacre. He’s a fine chap. A good egg, eh wot? His voice makes me think of P.G. Wodehouse — school ties, spats, monocles. I can imagine him as one of Bertie Wooster’s pals having fun down at the Drones Club.

      The fact that he has had to deal with the intransigence of the people piloting the Q juggernaut should help him notice this sort of behavior in other areas. He’s quick to point out that what we hastily call “Q material” should really be called “double tradition material,” since the former uses the vocabulary of a proposed solution to describe elements in the problem domain.

      If he can see the the mote in Q’s eye, perhaps one day he’ll see the beam in HJ’s.

      1. But if Mark Goodacre is sceptical about the existence of Q, what else would he be sceptical about?

        Would he doubt the existence of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Gospel of Matthew or the existence of the inscription mentioning Pilate?

        1. How about these?

          Oral tradition, which is assumed but superfluous if the gospel writers were authors and not simple-minded redactors.
          The Baptism, which is more likely to be dramatic fiction to prove Jesus’ Sonship and anchor him in history than an historic event.
          A populated Nazareth in early first century CE, which is unnecessary to assert and defend if we accept Nazorean as a title of respect rather than a geographic surname.

  5. Michael Goulder was also mentor of John Shelby Spong who was disappointed by Goulder’s loss of faith. In Spong’s work we see the alternative to Q as a source — midrashic interpretations of OT scriptures.

    1. Yes, I have read Spong’s books, including his autobiography.
      And saw him on TV in Oz yonks ago, “Compass” maybe.
      I can’t help but like him, he puts a human face on christianity, a man worthy of respect.

  6. ‘Goodacre’s response is the standard one — that Paul’s letters are occasional writings. We would not expect to find references to many of these things given the nature of the letters. ‘

    What nature do these letters have?

    It is remarkable that ‘occasional writings’ – letters designed to address problems found in particular churches in the 1st century AD, should nevertheless be such a rich source of theology for 21st century Christians.

    It is almost as though the contents of these letters were mostly about the theological implications of the Son of God, rather than about the difficulty a particular church might have in finding enough chairs for people to sit on, or whether or not person A should replace person B as treasurer etc.

    1. Carr: “…letters designed to address problems found in particular churches…”

      Paul: “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.”

      There’s internal evidence that Paul expected people would read, keep, copy, re-read, and share his letters with other churches. And there’s indisputable external evidence that they were read, copied, and shipped all around the Empire and beyond.

      Why would anyone insist the epistles were “occasional” when the clearly the author, the readers, and the copyists all thought they were preserving general ideas and principles about Christianity that applied to all believers for all time?

  7. ‘I like to explore and be open about historical questions but I think we should be wary of the kind of hyper-scepticism which begins from a position of thinking that we must know absolutely nothing.’

    ‘We are weaned off Santa Claus very young. No, I don’t mean that the evidence for Jesus is comparable with the evidence for Santa! What I am saying is that it is harder to let go of one who has been the centre of our lives, careers, life-styles, very often even our personal and family well-being.’
    (Vardis Fisher)

    I think it’s not entirely a bad thing to let go of the preconceptions that make up one’s unsupported thoughts about Jesus and begin where one feels most comfortable.
    I think it’s almost better to begin there and whatever is going to come through from the spirit of Jesus Christ is going to be of considerably more valuable as it will be his building a relationship with you.
    My entrance to Christianity was catastrophic and I ended up dusting my broom and just getting on with my life. It was only in that letting go that Jesus was able to get close to me.
    I recall to very special incidents (one a happening and the other ongoing) in which his spirit drew me to himself.
    1. I was copying a tape recording of one of the NT books (John) and simultaneously entertaining guests and eventually became convinced that I was recording Paul’s letter to the Romans. On entering the room where I was busy recording, I turned up the volume to find out how far along it was and was transfixed. All I could manage was (out loud, to myself) ‘Wow, Paul really speaks with great authority’ Eventually as the tape rolled on I twigged it was Jesus speaking. I wasn’t devoid of belief at the time, but it was certainly a lesson on how valuable it is to approach the text with more openness than I had in the past.
    2. During my extremely anti-Christian period (about ten years) and that after having been a Christian for about 14 years, I found I was only able to listen to some things by Christians. (an instrumental album by Phil Keaggy – Wind and the Wheat and a rock ‘n roll album by the bad boy of Jesus Music – Larry Norman called in another land, the rest was toast.) When I tried to get back to God, I thought I might start by listening to the gospel according to John and so got a copy of it read by Alexander Scourby. I was as cold as ice and did not believe in anything by myself and the life that I lived. I did not pretend to have faith in it all, or accept it as true and my attitude was ‘If you are going to get to me, you are going to have to deal with me and all my skepticism for there is no way I am going to go down the road of making it all up.’ Basically, if I am going to be convinced of this Jesus, it’s going to have to be me sitting listening with the most critical and demanding self and not just buying into it all because it’s the WORD OF GOD or INFALLIBLE, INERRANT etc.
    I had decided to give it a fair go and not just give up when it did not make sense or was stupid and one thing I discovered was that somehow and I cannot fully explain it, a bit at a time GOD began using the book to draw me into a relationship first with Jesus the character in a story. (Note- story) Later on I began to reach out in prayer and encounter the spirit of Jesus Christ and though I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of the Bible, I have found that as Albert Schweitzer did there is a Jesus who is real. (read his last chapter.)


  8. Vardis Fisher did not say the trite words you attributed to him. That was me.

    Your mistake was when you decided not to give up when what you heard did not make sense or was stupid.

    I preferred the approach you espoused in your comment on the other post where you said the best we can hope for is a reasonable approach to belief.

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