Dear Joseph Hoffmann, . . . . P.S. . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

I love this remark by classicist Michael Grant:

[A]s J. B. Bury remarked, it is essentially absurd for a historian to wish that any alleged fact should turn out to be true or false. Careful scrutiny does not presuppose either credulity or hostility. (Jesus, p. 200, my emphasis)

This sounds to me like a simple truism. Occasionally someone (even a scholar) may express some question about the historicity of Socrates or Hillel, more recently even of David. There’s no question in those instances of being labelled a “mythicist” or “historicist”. The reason, I suggest, is that those questions are far less invested with cultural ideology and vested institutional interests (at least outside Israel in the case of David).

I don’t know too many “Christ Myth theorists” who stand to lose anything should they eventually be found to be wrong. And I don’t know of any of them who seriously engage with the scholarship who have made a good $$ from mythicism. But no-one can deny that many careers and institutions have been founded upon the belief in the historicity of Jesus.

I don’t even think of “Did Jesus Exist?” as an historical question. Historical questions, in my mind, are directed at explaining the evidence. So we have evidence for the emergence of Christianity. Okay, so the historical question is, “What caused the emergence and growth of Christianity?” (That question, incidentally, is the underlying motif of most of my blog posts. Not mythicism per se.)

The only Jesus that matters is the Jesus in the evidence that we have at our fingertips, and that’s obviously a literary and theological figure. I can understand how genre and criss-crossing strands of evidence can help us flesh out historical characters behind the archaeological and literary evidence of people like Julius Caesar, and of others whom we conclude must have been part of their lives. But let’s be serious. We really do know that the stories of Jesus are not in that range of genre and external corroboration.

Oh, and by the way. I mentioned in my last post that I think belief in Christianity (let’s say the Bible or the Qu’ran/Koran — let’s cover all three “people of the book” religions while we’re at it) has been responsible for much harm. It has. I know. Millions of people know, surely. I’m not talking about just the big issues like war, racism, sexism and slavery. There’s also the “silent” damage it has done to millions of individuals who suffer daily in cities, suburbs and beyond.

But what I want to add here in this P.S. is that I can also look back on my life and see that even in the worst times there is something I can salvage of value and ongoing worth for me and others. Check my posts on “fundamentalism” — see this blog’s Index of Topics — and you will also see that I have made the most of good things that also came out of my religious past and have encouraged others who have likewise suffered to do the same.

The Message:

Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann, you err when you attempt to see the argument between “Christ Myth Theorists” and “Jesus was a Historical Figure Persons” as a simple white, grey, black affair:

  • Jesus Prospect historicists, “white”,
  • all the other historical Jesus scholars like Ehrman and co an incompetent “grey”,
  • and Scrooge McDuck’s Mythtics “black”:


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Dear Joseph Hoffmann, . . . . P.S. . . .”

  1. I don’t know too many “Christ Myth theorists” who stand to lose anything should they eventually be found to be wrong.

    There is no idea one can promote without risking the loss of two things: one’s pride and the security one finds in one’s perspective of the universe. Were this untrue the hundreds of thousands of anonymous people who debate on the Internet would be receptive to each other’s points of view rather than protecting their own like a dog might the carcass of a rabbit.

    1. Sure there is some embarrassment over being found to be wrong in public discussion, but those who are the most serious about studying the question honestly will find that a small price to pay and would much rather learn and progress. Not too long ago I was forced to face up to a long unrecognized contradiction in my own views and realized I had been supporting an argument more on ideological grounds than historical methodological ones.

      But dammit, McGrath, Hoffmann, Casey, Crossley and others won’t tackle my arguments or show me where and why I am wrong. The first three of those have spent a lot of time creating a psychological profile of me, however, solely on the basis of a tendentious (let’s say perverse) reading of a narrow selection of details from my bio.

  2. “it is essentially absurd for a historian to wish that any alleged fact should turn out to be true or false.”

    Or, to put it another way, if you wish alleged facts are true or false, you’re not a historian.

    Jesus scholars are in the unfortunate position of wishing that the stories are somehow true, and then constructing elaborate explanations and apologies when it turns out they aren’t true. This is theology, not history.

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