Selective, One-Eyed Responses from Scholars Against Mythicism (SAMs)

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by Neil Godfrey

The problem with mythicists such as Doherty, Salm, Zindler, Wells, Ellegard, Price is that they engage with the mainstream scholarly literature devoted to studies of Christian origins and the historical Jesus. This poses a problem for anti-mythicist scholars such as Ehrman and McGrath. It forces them to do two things:

  1. Accuse the mythicists of dishonesty because they dare cite works that are not written by mythicists when they find in those works some point that they believe supports their case;
  2. Argue against mythicism by means of just one particular argument as if the many opposing viewpoints of their own peers simply do not exist. That is, they must suppress the fact that there are mainstream scholars who do support some particular details found in mythicist arguments.

The fallacious charge of dishonesty

I addressed #1 only recently at Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman so won’t repeat myself here. I will add a brief note from Richard Carrier’s list of axioms of historical method:

Axiom 12: When one of us cites a scholar, it should only be assumed we agree with what they say is essential to the point we cite them for. (p. 34 of Proving History)

What happens is that when, say, Earl Doherty cites scholarly works supporting his view that 1 Corinthians 2:8 was originally understood by Paul to mean demons were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, hostile critics retort that those same scholars also argue that they crucified Jesus by proxy, that is, through the Romans. They certainly do, and it is well understood that they do since it is well understood that Doherty is arguing a position against the views of the general scholarly community. It is clear and obvious to everyone that those scholars are not also mythicists. In their attempts to disallow Doherty the right to use scholarly views to support any point at all he is making in his argument for mythicism they accuse him of being dishonest by quoting scholars who do not agree with his larger point. (See Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman for details.)

There’s a converse to this. Carrier expands on this axiom from that converse position. One might call it the fallacious charge of gullibility, but Carrier calls it the baggage fallacy:

This kind of ‘baggage’ fallacy (often deployed as a variety of the text-book fallacy of “poisoning the well”) is common enough to warrant particular condemnation. In fact, I see this fallacy committed so regularly, so widely, by accomplished scholars who ought to know better, that I feel the need to call particular attention to it now, in the hopes it will forestall a repeat performance. If you cite a scholar as proving point A, and that same scholar also argues B, but B is not necessary to A, then it is a fallacy for anyone to assume you agree with B, and a fallacy to employ this assumption to argue that if B is not credible then A is not credible. I call this the ‘baggage’ fallacy because it amounts to saddling an author with all the ‘baggage’ attached to the scholar he cites or the views he defends, when such attachment is neither entailed nor warranted. Just because I take certain positions or arrive at certain conclusions is no excuse to impute to me all the baggage that is usually supposed to come along with those positions or conclusions.

For example, when I argue a point (such as that distinct elements of Osiris cult can be seen in early Jesus cult), it might be assumed I agree with something else that supposedly goes along with this (such as that all elements of Osiris cult were present in early Jesus cult, or that Jesus is merely Osiris under another name, of that Christians just “borrowed” and “revamped” an Egyptian religion). That would be mistaken. . . . The same fallacy also results when I agree with something a particular book said, or cite it as a reference of importance on a specific subject, and then it’s assumed I agree with everything that book said or its author elsewhere defends. (p. 35)

Selective rebuttals

This is one I have encountered frequently from probably the internet’s leading scholarly crusader against mythicism, Dr James McGrath. The number of times he will argue against, say, a point by Doherty with nothing but his own opinion as if his personal view alone were the only known “truth” — while completely ignoring the wider scholarly field of his peers where there really do indeed exist arguments in support of Doherty’s specific point — are legion. But just when I thought it was safe to overlook this fallacy as if it were the preserve of but one one-eyed scholar along comes Dr Bart Ehrman with his foray against mythicism.

Here is just one example:

There was a story that was originally told in Aramaic, but when it was translated into Greek, the translator left the key line in the original language so that it required translation for those who were not bilingual. (p. 87, Did Jesus Exist?)

Ehrman here is referring to the story of Jesus raising from the apparent dead the daughter of Jairus as told in Mark 5:37-43:

He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

So there you have it. An authority of biblical studies pronounces that this story in Mark was originally written in Aramaic, and that that accounts for the Aramaic phrase appearing in our Greek Gospel. Thus pronounces the scholar: Mark used early Aramaic sources that he had to translate into Greek. End of story. And Dr Ehrman knows his words will be taken as the final authority by a good number of his lay readers: after all, his blog confirmation-email informs inquirers that he has too many people emailing him for him to answer all emails personally, and that he will consider public debating if he is offered his standard fee.

I will leave it to curious readers to contact Bart and ask him for themselves why he has failed to acknowledge at least the viability of an alternative scholarly hypothesis found in the literature and of which he must surely be aware: that the author of the Gospel narrative entered the Aramaic words into a text for Greek readers in order to accentuate the dramatic effect of the moment of the miracle by according to Aristotle’s maxim of the need for the strange words to save the story from the merely prosaic, or for the simple popular reason of introducing a magical sounding formula as the agent of the miracle.

The scholarly literature does indeed offer such alternative explanations to the opinion expressed by Ehrman.

Sometimes other views are acknowledged fleetingly but their true status within the guild is hidden. In the main text of his book Bart Ehrman gives no indication that there is scholarly debate over whether the Gospel of John shows evidence of having much of its content derived from the Gospel of Mark or other Synoptics. On page 76 Ehrman writes as if it is an established and uncontested fact that the Gospel of John is independent of the Synoptic Gospels. It is only in a footnote that he acknowledges that “some scholars think that John knew and used the synoptic Gospels, but I think this is unlikely.” He refers readers to D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels. But Moody Smith’s book will inform readers that the divide is not between an overwhelming majority on one side and a mere “few” (which also implies the names themselves are insignificant) on the other. Lawrence M. Wills, Norman Perrin, C. K. Barrett, Frans Neirynck, M. Sabbe, Hartwig Thyen, M. E. Boismard, Manfred Lang, Udo Schnelle and others have mounted strong arguments for this gospel’s relationship with the Synoptics and Moody Smith himself comes down on a compromise position between the two.

No doubt the majority of biblical scholars do belong to the Christian faith and consequently do have a vested interest in any explanation that lends credence to the “Gospel Truth” at least some level of epistemological validity. All the more reason, then, that biblical scholars who do not adhere to that faith should alert the public to the full range of scholarly views that are at least judged tolerable and publishable within that scholarly community.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Selective, One-Eyed Responses from Scholars Against Mythicism (SAMs)”

  1. I assume Ehrman tells his readers how this story was shaped by the Old Testament.

    See http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm

    As confirmation that Mark used 2 Kings 4 for his stories of the feeding of a crowd, and the raising of a dead child, Mark 5:42 says that after the miracle, the parents were ‘amazed with great amazement’ (exestesan ekstasei megale), while 2 Kings 4:13 we have ‘amazed with all amazement’ (exestesas… pasan ten ekstasin tauten)

    Did Ehrman leave that out?

  2. And, of course, the Hitler Diaries were originally written in German.

    This proves they are genuine, because Hitler spoke German, just as finding a story in Aramaic proves that Jesus spoke those very words, lovingly noted down and preserved by his disciples and copied unchanged until Mark wrote them.

    1. No Steve. That’s the wrong analogy. The Hitler Diaries were fictions and frauds, but we still know Hitler existed because we have all sorts of other evidence. So even if the gospels are fictions and frauds, we can still know that Jesus existed because we have all sorts of other evidence.

  3. Ehrman seems inconsistent at times. He says Jesus as a suffering messiah can’t be a midrash on Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and Psalm 69, because no Jews ever thought of these passages to be describing the messiah. But at the same time, Ehrman allows that Jesus’ return from Egypt to Israel in Matthew 2:16 is using Hosea 11:1 as a midrash even though the “son” referred to in the Old Testament passage was the nation of Israel, not the messiah, and not even a person. Why can Ehrman allow a midrash out of context in the latter case, but not the former?

  4. No doubt the majority of biblical scholars do belong to the Christian faith and consequently do have a vested interest in any explanation that lends credence to the “Gospel Truth” at at least some level of epistemological validity. All the more reason, then, that biblical scholars who do not adhere to that faith should alert the public to the full range of scholarly views that are at least judged tolerable and publishable within that scholarly community.

    But Ehrman has for years been teaching his students his view about Jesus the apocalyptic Jewish rabbi, so he has a vested interest in that. Moreover, even though he isn’t a believer, he is rather supportive of Christianity. At minute 55:22 of his March, 2011 talk to the Commonwealth Club of California, he points out that his wife is an Episcopalian and a Christian and that nothing he writes has any effect on her faith. Instead of being disconcerted by this, he seems to take pride in it.

  5. Does Ehrman really just stop there? If Mark was translated from an Aramaic manuscript, especially by someone who would have been unlikely to be an expert translator or masterfully literate in both languages, then scholars like Ehrman would probably be able to cite passages that sound like “Chinglish” assembly instructions for IKEA furniture. I have read elsewhere that Mark’s Greek is of low quality compared to the other Gospels. I’m guessing that a scholar with expertise in Koine Greek would be able to get a pretty good idea whether it’s because it’s a translation, or Mark’s author was something of a bumpkin, in the same way that an English speaker can tell the difference between a written rural Tennessee dialect and the aforementioned IKEA instructions. On the other hand, the arguments explaining how they can tell the difference in Koine Greek (analyses of word usage and sentence structure, syntax, etc.) would probably be too technical to explain to a lay audience who don’t know the language. Without boring them to tears, anyway.

    I haven’t bought Ehrman’s book yet, since I’m still working my way through Carrier’s and Doherty’s, and so far it doesn’t look like Ehrman is doing a very good job of representing the historicist position. Maybe someone else in the scholarly community, after cringing her or his way through DJE will take a few deep breaths and produce a more dispassionate, solidly-argued case.

    I would be surprised if the scholarly consensus is really “Mark used a few Aramaic words in a healing spell and Jesus’ utterance from the cross, therefore the Gospel was translated from an Aramaic original that we can now say we ‘have’ as a source document.” A coterie of fundamentalist apologists might do something like that, but why wouldn’t every atheist, Jewish, etc. NT scholar (including Ehrman!) call that sort of thing out?

    I continue to be surprised by the emotional intensity that arises around what would seem to be a fairly obscure question to, say, someone from India learning of it for the first time: “Did the ‘Jesus’ of the New Testament start out as a fairly ordinary and unremarkable apocalyptic prophet, or as a channeled entity worshiped by a group of Hellenized Jewish mystics?” By the time this question is even asked, the “Jesus” of orthodoxy has already been disposed of, so it’s a little late to organize a heresy hunt and start gathering pitchforks and torches.

    I suppose it could be that Jesus is still a prime cultural icon even for people who no longer worship him–rather like the American flag–so that mythicism (and arguably, New Atheism as well, since NA’s no longer honor the icon even as a “great moral teacher” or “wise philosopher”) provokes a visceral response. To proclaim that the God-Emperor is not merely naked (or, clothed only in a sandwich-board sign proclaiming The End is Nigh) as mainstream historicist scholars do, but is himself invisible, a creation of the New Testament tailors as much as his raiment, may seem like “going too far” to people who still feel inclined to respect the icon and Christianity itself as good, ennobling things. On the other hand, that doesn’t explain historicists like John W. Loftus, who are also in the New Atheist camp.

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