What mythicists need

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by Neil Godfrey

What mythicists need is a competent, knowledgeable and intelligent historicist to challenge them. One who doesn’t resort to ad hominem or outright insult. One who doesn’t see “mythicism” in every nook and cranny — whether in creationism or the Piltdown man or even Shakespeare! — wherever he or she even half way suspects he/she just might possibly find it.

Recently I responded to one scholar who has picked up the anti-mythicist cause when he wrote:

There is no more circularity (and no less) in investigating a historical Jesus than a historical Socrates or John the Baptist or Shakespeare.

I disagreed. I had referred to statements by historical Jesus scholars who have had the intellectual honesty to concede the circularity of their enterprise. (I have posted on these several times now — quotations by Albert Schweitzer, Stevan Davies and Dale C. Allison.)

I had pointed out that the evidence for the historicity of Socrates is not circular and referred to my earlier posts demonstrating this simple fact. We have multiple independent contemporary sources for the existence of Socrates — at least one from a devoted pupil and another from a scoffing playwright, one from a friend and one from a(n apparent) foe — and so the probability for the historical existence of Socrates is at least positive. Schweitzer lamented the fact that we have no comparable evidence for the historicity of Jesus since all the sources for Jesus are traced 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. (p. 402, 2001 edition of Quest)

On the question of Shakespeare I said that no-one doubts the existence of Shakespeare. After all, if we had the tangible evidences for Jesus that we have for Shakespeare’s existence — details learned in the upper high schools of probably most Anglo-English speaking countries (maybe not the U.S.?) — we would have no Christ Myth debate at all.

Unfortunately (from my perspective) none of these rejoinders carried any weight at all with my interlocutor. They were not even addressed. I don’t mind so much if my arguments are found wanting as a result of being dissected and pulled apart intestinal thread by intestinal cord (okay, that hurts, but hey, it’s “GOOD” for me!). But I am left with no reason to abandon my position unless my position is tackled and dissected full on.

My interlocutor recently asked me this:

Do you understand and acknowledge that if a historian happens across your blog they will not be impressed with what they find there, and will not find your approach and your claims representative of what they do as historians?

To which I replied:

Well, no. I say that because a number of professional scholars have contacted me and expressed the very opposite. I have sometimes discussed their own books on my blog — that’s when they sometimes contact me. Some are nonhistorians. Some are historians. Most are not even mythicists but some have expressed sympathy or interest in the mythicist concept.

Further, what I have said about historical methods is nothing bizarre or unusual at all. It  is copied straight from what historians themselves have written, and from some biblical scholars, too.

Sure there will be some who disagree and I have had debates on my blog and in some cases I have realized in the past I may have overstated some aspects but I have over time worked more closely to a more balanced explanation as a result of those discussions.

I also concede — and have written about this too — that some who write history don’t even think about some of these things because they are so embedded in the culture and taken for granted. Sometimes bringing them out into the open forces a re-think and can be a bit confronting at first.

I only arrived at my own point of view after a lot of thinking: How DO we know about the past? And that led me to think over all the history I had studied, the various schools of thought, and to compare this with the nonsense ideas that are out there. Few others have really stopped to think these things through systematically.

I should clarify that not all scholars whose books I have discussed on my blog have contacted me. Not at all. Only some.

But another aspect of this whole scenario that I find instructive is this: When I first started this blog it was not too long before scholars, some of them who preferred to remain masked beneath the pen-names they used on other internet forums, contributed positively to the comments on my posts. But once others on the internet labelled me as persona non gratis (“mythicist”) they disappeared — at least from the public comments. (I have continued to receive favourable and encouraging correspondence from biblical and other scholars privately.)  So it was immediately clear to me that image was more important than the substance of the “mythicist” debate.

So what I would really love more than anything else (at least apart from my professional or domestic life) is this:

A scholar, a historian preferably (though even more preferably one who is a “historian” by virtue of studies unrelated to theology!) to talk with about methodology in history – any history from von Ranke to Hayden White — who is willing to take a little time to critique what I have discussed on this blog and elsewhere. But failing that, even a theologian who believes he or she is divinely or otherwise qualified to speak as a historian would do. But there is one condition. Civility. I do not have time for the boorish (sorry, tim/spin/judge/observer or whoever you are!).

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18 thoughts on “What mythicists need”

  1. Agreed, but its hard to find for three reasons. Obviously one reason is that most are highly biased from the start, another is that very few people are actually qualified, indeed many people think that theologians are the most qualified people, but they aren’t obviously, we aren’t talking about theology we are talking about history, but the problem is that in this field most historians simply follow the theologians, and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the well has been significantly tainted by horrible “mythicists”.

    I’ve found that even getting people to tackle the case that I’ve put forward is difficult because they often aren’t really addressing my case, they are addressing “typical claims”. Personally I find the more popular set of mythicist claims to be totally bogus myself and folks like Acharya S., etc. do the field a horrible disservice. That’s why in my first “book” on the subject I spent several pages addressing fallacies and flaws within the mythicist camp first.

    In the coming months I’m going to start work on a new article, hopefully to be made into a publishable book, that I honestly think will be the most solid case ever put forward against the “existence of Jesus”, and it has little to do with the “traditional” mythicist fare, and as with my other articles on the subject goes completely against comparisons to pagan gods etc. My work on the subject relies heavily on textual analysis of the Gospels, but also covers a lot of other areas as well.

    At any rate, I agree with you, but I also acknowledge that many problems with “mythicism” stem from “mythicists” themselves.

    Here’s my stuff on the subject:

    The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory:

    Jesus Myth – The Case Against Historical Christ

    (Self-published Book) Jesus – A Very Jewish Myth

  2. I agree with R.G. Price’s last point. There are many different types of mythicist theories. Now, I believe that there is very little verifiable evidence for a historical Jesus, so we can know very little about him with any certainty. Thus, like Dr Robert Price says, from a perspective of what we can know for sure, he may as well not have existed.

    So most of my posts in the past haven’t been pro-HJ, but against certain versions of mythicism. And even then, they haven’t been against the idea of mythicism per se (the Jesus story IS a myth, regardless of whether there is a HJ or not), but how those cases (mis)represent ancient pagan and Christian thinking about their myths. Thus I have no interest in most mythicist cases, like Atwill’s “Caesar Messiah”, Pete Brown’s “no Christianity before Constantine”, etc, since they don’t interact with the ancient myths.

    Neil, many of your posts are against how scholars use historical methods today, and more power to you. But there is a case for/against mythicism, and there is a case for/against historicism. Since logically neither side may have enough evidence to come to a conclusion, they should be treated separately. By using “mythicism” as a blanket term, I’m guessing most HJ scholars will probably only think in terms of the weakest mythicist case available, and so not motivated to engage it. Questioning historical methods is good, but it still won’t induce scholars to investigate mythicism, since it tells them nothing about it. So they will never move beyond thinking mythicism is a fringe idea that has already been decidedly debunked years ago.

    What is needed is mythicists working together with other mythicists, to build the best possible mythicist case available. Get the leading mythicists together — scholars like Carrier, Dr Price, Thompson, then lay people who have published on the topic like Doherty, Acharya S (maybe), Freke & Gandy, Salm, with yourself, R. G. Price and others who have investigated this — to build one or two of the strongest supported cases possible, and work from there. IOW a “Jesus Myth Project”, using those scholars and laymen who are interested in investigating and strengthening the case, rather than a dozen people having a dozen mythicist arguments, many of which clash.

    At the end of the day, a strong case with broad agreement from a number of scholars would make it much harder for scholars to ignore.

  3. I don’t know that anyone has made a half-way decent case for the historical Jesus. The whole idea seems always to come down to “They wouldn’t make it all up.”

    But they clearly did “make it all up”. Paul writes about the spiritual Jesus and that’s all that interests him. The Gospels are demonstrably creative literary adaptations of other creative literature.

    And I often write about all of this as I have read about it in mainstream scholarly works.

    So really many mainstream scholars are already fully immersed in discussing “the Christ myth” or the literary and theological fiction anyway.

  4. What mythicists need is not a sympathetic audience but a suitably qualified advocate. Where are the competent, knowledgeable, intelligent, professional historians who take mythicism seriously and defend its merits? There aren’t any. Competent, knowledgeable, intelligent, professional historians reject mythicism. Not difficult to join the dots on that one.

    1. Professor Hoffmann disagrees with you: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/christ-myth-and-holocaust-denial/#comment-10067

      I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof)rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.

      And Professors Thomas L. Thompson, Stevan Davies, Hector Avalos and Robert Price are incompetent, ignorant and unintelligent?

      1. Add Richard Carrier to that growing list please, as he is one of the most careful examiners of historical method out there. If anyone parses out the distinctives of various methodologies, it’s Carrier. Nevertheless, Mr. Burke has to throw an idiotic wrench into the mix every so often, even if just to remind us how dense his thought process is.

        1. I still get those horrid comments coming into my email from that Doherty Mythicist post of some cerebrally challenged types and I think I noticed a couple of them — a McGrath and a Burke if I recall — actually using a text provenanced NINE CENTURIES after the original Josephus in order to pontificate dogmatically, most authoritatively (even going so far as the former name impressing himself by suggesting he was going to dig out the “Arabic” version!) to affirm the very original Josephan core of the Testimonium Flavianum. 900 years! And this is the “scholar” who tried to tell me that all historians would just laugh at what I say about historical method. Can you imagine how ancient historians would treat a document from the first century that purported to explain what a document dated 900 b.c.e. in Ugarit said? Or what credibility a modern historian would give to a text only recently written but with no known provenance at all and that purported to cite a text that supposedly existed in the year 1100?

          One day someone in that quarter is going to wake up to the fact that they might be looking a little foolish when they call themselves “historians”. In my day job I deal with data management and one of the key concepts is “authentication” — we must have ways to enable community trust that data preserveed over very long time spans is the authentic thing. There are absolutely no controls to help us determine the history of the provenance and life-cycle of a text dated 900 years after a supposed original in the case of the Josephan text.

  5. ‘What mythicists need is a competent, knowledgeable and intelligent historicist to challenge them.’

    Ehrman’s book refuting mythicism is due out this month,

    My hunch is that it will directly address precisely zero of Earl Doherty’s 20 Top Silences in the Epistles, and my other hunch is that it will explain that Jesus had a brother called James.

    We will have to wait to see if I am right.

    1. Steven Carr: Greetings and salutations;

      Bart Ehrman is not the Mythicist’s friend, by any stretch, as I am sure you know. The very titles of his books scream for a human Jesus. Bart Ehrman’s books share two problems typical to religious scholarship which I have found thus far: the first is that he confuses disciple with apostle, a difference which the ancients knew and expressed quite clearly, unless purposefully obfuscating (i.e. second century proto-orthodox authors); the second is that he conflates scripture with the Gospels and gospel, good news, with the Gospels, as well (another point of obfuscation in the second century). This has been evident since his Lost Christianities, 2003. Neither of these problems do I see as accidental, nor are they due to any gap in his education, quite the opposite. And this speaks to the whole of biblical historians — to some degree.

      The earliest doctors of the church knew this all too well. Which is why we have the anachronistic line up of books in the NT canon. These church fathers (include Marcion, and his “original Luke,” also) needed Paul’s use of the word scripture to bring the Gospels to mind (eg. the first of Ehrman’s obfuscations), but more importantly these same primitive propagandists (in this case not Marcion or the other non-canonical authors, per se, but the canonical authors & Irenaeus to Eusebius, et al.) needed Paul’s use of the word Apostle to bring the second century contrivance of disciple to the mind of the reader. The reader, of course, was not the public at large (not for another 1200 years, anyway), but the inner circle of the church hierarchy who would orate and interpret a reading, piecemeal. This is what Ehrman’s books do. Like a fisherman who jumps in the water with the fish and seine net, Ehrman moves through the Christology built from what he calls misquotes, and other mistakes of the church authorities; while all along, keeping the conversation on his side of the mystification of Gospel and disciple with gospel, scripture and apostle — his seine net. When he’s done, the reader has been corralled into the belief that Paul, and the other Gnostics (that is, Philonic, Platonic Jews, of course), were speaking of a historical Jesus via the obfuscation of Paul’s use of anointed savior, good news, and scripture, and it was the church authorities who got it wrong concerning what a historical Jesus said and did. They were merely human, or so goes the claim. So, even with all his enlightened reconstructions, the reader is still left with a belief in God and a historical Jesus. It is the Bible and its authors that take the blame for the misunderstanding, misconstruing, and misquoting.

      This leaves the actual historian in a somewhat weaker position given what Ehrman concedes while not weakening this belief system which isn’t based on any evidence in the first place. Remember, Bart Ehrman is not a rationalist that concedes certain aspects of ancient history to the Christians. He is, rather, a christian scholar that concedes certain aspects of christian dogma to the rationalists and historians.

      So, what will Ehrman address in his forthcoming book? My guess is it will be anything that weakens the authority of the sources of evidence which mythicists can use while arbitrarily asserting that there had to be a Jesus (something along the lines of Celsus’s itinerate street preacher perhaps). “They would not just make it up, would they?” When the reader is done, he or she will be left with the idea that there was a Jesus, just not the supernatural one described in the Gospels. And in the end, without proffering an iota of evidence in support of a God or the historical Son, Christianity will walk away unscathed, and all the fundamentalists will have a new, evidentiarily vacuous, opinionated reference to cite as corroborator for an historical Jesus.

      As for wading into the quagmire that would result from even referring to Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier, Robert M Price, Thomas L Thompson, Stevan Davies, Hector Avalos or any of the mythicists of yester years, say, Remsburg, Drews, Ingersoll, et al., one can only hope. Only, I will assure you that G.A. Wells will be trotted out as a convert when his view distinguished between a Celsus type character and the Gospel character. Also, whatever Ehrman does chose to address, he will stay in that ephemeral vacuum — that Orphic abyss of popular apologetics — that which can only be ascribed, via his level of assuredness in his opinion of the literary constructs that are those characters and situations described in books of the Bible, any validity at all.

  6. “What mythicists need is a competent, knowledgeable and intelligent historicist to challenge them. One who doesn’t resort to ad hominem or outright insult.”

    How do you explain the fact that by Paul’s own admission, those who were apostles before him teach a more Jewish doctrine that doesn’t agree at all with his much later “revelation” which came to him “out of season”? It doesn’t sound like Paul’s predecessors were pagans worshiping a mythical Christ crucified in the heavens, but that they were Torah observant Jews who thought a crucified man was the Messiah and would return from the dead to finish the job that was interrupted by his untimely death. But just as inerrantists ignore so many contradictions in the Bible, mythicists have carte blanch to ingore whatever admissions of Paul as to the lateness of his doctrine as they want. Spare me the “Paul’s writings are before the gospels crap”–even so his own writings admit that before him were Torah observant Jewish apostles who did not view Jesus as an incarnate deity whose death saves mankind by faith–they believed in salvation by the Torah. Otherwise, what is the point in Galatians of “tell me, you who desire to be under the Law” (who were convinced they should be under the Law by Jewish apostles who preceded Paul in time, “those who were apostles before me”)–mythicism is as flawed as Fundamentalism–it is a sort of Fundamentalism.

    1. Rey – have you read either my post about Schmithals’ argument or Galatians 4-5? Paul points out to his readers that if anyone teaches circumcision then they will be, according to the law itself, be obligated to keep the whole law.

      This sounds very much like Paul is addressing an audience who never realized — or who refused to admit — that mere circumcision would bring with it, according to the law, an obligation to keep the whole law.

      According to Galatians it is up to Paul to point out to his target audience that circumcision means the requirement to keep the whole law.

      Thus we have no reason to think that Paul’s enemies were teaching the “whole law” at all. That very idea is something that has to be pointed out by Paul himself.

      1. “Schmithals…points out to his readers that if anyone teaches circumcision then they will be, according to the law itself, be obligated to keep the whole law.”

        Yes, but I don’t think this demonstrates that Paul’s readers didn’t think they had an obligation to keep the whole law. I think rather Paul is reminding them of HIS doctrine that to fail to keep one commandment even once means damnation, for in Galatians 3 he interprets that passage from the end Deuteronomy 27 “Whoever does not confirm the words of this law to do them is cursed” as meaning some irrevocable eternal curse for simply failing once to keep any part of the law. Yet, Jews interpret the very same passage as teaching the acceptableness of repentance before God! And further, by continuing to read into the next chapter (28) one will find that the curse for not performing the law is only temporal, not eternity in hell. I think that the Galatians know all of this, and therefore are already immune to Paul’s argument. Paul is not informing them of their obligation to keep the whole law; he is trying to recall them to his odd interpretation of the end of Deut 27, which does not hold up under analysis. Indeed, since they were at one time Paulinists but left Paulinism for some Torah-based ‘Christianity’, they must have read Deut 27 in context already and said “what the hell was Paul smoking when he taught us that?”

  7. The position of Hyam Maccoby’s two books on Paul (the ‘popular’ one: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity; and the scholarly: Paul and Hellenism) combined with Reirmarus’ (The Aims of Jesus and his disciples) is the most reasonable. This mythicism crap really is just antisemitism disguised. The obvious fact is that Jesus started a Jewish Messianic movement, got himself killed, and his 12 top disciples tried to somehow keep the movement alive after his death (inserting Reimarus’ interpretation here, which Maccoby has nothing to do with, that they did so to keep the cash flowing having seen how well a man could live off of preaching). Then along comes Paul and changes things up, infuses the Jewish movement with pre-Christian Gnosticism and mystery cult religion, turns the politically motivated execution of Jesus (crucified for Messianic rhetoric against Rome) into the sacrifice of a divine god-man like Attis whose body and blood must be consumed by the initiates in order to gain immortality. Paul admits to being late to the game, admits that the original concept was different, more Jewish, yet insists that his is correct because although the 12 may have got their idea from the fleshly Jesus, he got his by divine revelation from the resurrected god-man spiritual Jesus (“although some knew Jesus after the flesh, from henceforth know we him no more”). This is the simple truth which cannot be gainsaid except by antisemitic fanatics who want to give Pauline theology a way to be valid despite its wrong headedness and unhistoricalness. I mean, if the original concept of Jesus was of a divine being crucified in the heavens, and all this stuff about him being a real boy is later addition, the Jews can be vilified as the ones who corrupted the record, and we can all return to an antisemitic Gnosticism. (You don’t think people will do this?) The better way to invalidate Christianity is to tell the truth, not to lie. Saying Jesus is a myth just provides Paulinists a way to divorce their belief in Jesus from the gospels, and make it all the more antisemitic, and all the more libertine and insane, and all the more fundamentalist crazy. If on the other hand you keep shoving in their face that Paul twisted everything Jesus was about and that Paulinism is illegitimate from the perspective of the historical Jesus, then you keep the lunatics on the defensive and eventually nullify Paulinism. But the procedure you are following will just embolden the nutcases; they will just toss the idea of a historical Jesus to better enable themselves to hate the Jews (for having made it seem that Jesus was Jewish by writing the gospels) and they will become more and more anti-human and seeking to convert each and every one of you with more furiosity.

    1. And if you show (as Maccoby does, and as Reimarus does) that Jesus was crucified for political reasons (Messianic rhetoric combined with the disturbance he cause in the temple) and that the New Testament itself bears this out by providing first the political charge and then trying to spin it away and replace it with the religious charge of blasphemy–if you show this, you also show that the simple historical account of a crucified Messianic claimant put to death by the High Priest (a Roman functionary) and Rome was turned into an account of a god killed on religious grounds by the Jewish people. You show that the truth, the historical truth, was obscured do to Paul’s concept of Jesus as a deity, and that the gospels which are written after Paul utilized his deity concept and his antisemitism to produce this narrative. You invalidate Christianity better this way than by saying “Jesus is a myth.” For saying he is a myth just provides the basis of a mythical antisemitic religion. But showing how the thing was put together by warping history invalidates its antisemitism.

    It doesn’t sound like Paul’s predecessors were pagans worshiping a mythical Christ crucified in the heavens, but that they were Torah observant Jews who thought a crucified man was the Messiah and would return from the dead to finish the job that was interrupted by his untimely death

    So were they Christians. If their view of Jesus was so different from the earliest Christian writings, and the Gospels , also a foundation of Christianity, ‘utilized his deity concept and his antisemitism to produce this narrative.’, then how could they satisfy any definition of Christianity?

    Why would Jews write antisemtic Gospels?

      1. Rey, Aloha;

        One of the most important aspects of my carrier is that I diagnose, among other things, the acute and specific gaps in a child’s education. These are usually children that don’t speak English very well, i.e. a Burmese and a Micronesian child are two of my current stars — among several, mostly Hawaiian, children. This means that I have become very adept at diagnosing, from all too ephemeral hints in a child’s attitude, conversation, reaction, and interaction with myself or another interlocutor which I observe or from which I get a report concerning that which a child is unfamiliar with, incompetent in, or a performance displaying a lack confidence.

        If I were to diagnose your current misapprehension of mythicism (as antisemitic?), I would begin by bracketing your misconception within an ahistorical bias. I don’t think you realize — mainly because you haven’t actually read (as opposed to read into, at best) the Bible, especially the Epistles of Paul without the aforementioned bias you brought to the task — that Saul (Paul) was a Jew, a Philonic Jew, but a Jew none the less. A Jew who, because of his Greek father, was not entirely accepted as Hebrew, so he over compensated. This explains his fervor in previously “persecuting” his new brethren “beyond measure” (Gal 1:13), and then his rejection of inheritances such as race, nationality, or culture (kata sarka), as a prerequisite for acceptance by the Hebrew deity. A Jew who wished to bring Gentiles into the fold of Platonic Jews. This is the church of God (not at all Christian) he once persecuted and then joined, leaving the established Jewish hierarchy of the Jerusalem Temple, probably because it no longer existed. He then became a leading member of a sect of Gnostic Jews, most likely, the “Brethren of the Lord” that were merely an evolution of the Jewish ideology in reaction to the perception that “The Fathers” had broken the old Mosaic Covenant. The Brethren, as well as — with some minor variations — very many other Jewish sects who found this perception satisfactory for explaining their deity’s forsaking of them and their homeland in the turbulent times of Roman occupation and destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem during the violence of 63, 40 BCE, 70, 115, & 132 CE. This violence was a major contributor to dispersal of Jews and the existence of the Diaspora communities. Saul, et al., envisioned that through what he (and it seems Cephas (Peter?), Jacob (James), and Josh (John)) concluded was a revelation (revealed through scripture, 1Cor 15:3) of a new covenant and an intervening, mediating, platonic messiah that had existed since its emanation in the beginning (Ro 16:25-26), a more inclusive Philonic Judaism which it seems the pillars among his brethren were not quite ready to propound. This means that the mystery (see: Ro 16:25) of Saul’s Platonic Jesus was very much Jewish, a product of Old Testament scripture and Jewish culture.

        To further your education along this vein, I would merely add that both mythicism and Judaism reject the claims of the Gospels, the Gospel character’s relationship to the Hebrew deity, and the implications, regarding the crucifixion, against the Jewish community of the era. Mythicism is by no means anti-Semitic. The idea is actually absurd. I feel that it’s these gaps in your understanding that has led you to this absurd view. So, I hope this comment fills-in some gaps.

        Please note: the main claim I make above, second paragraph, is readily gleaned from the Epistles that are generally accepted as authentic to Saul (Paul) by theological scholars.

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