McGrath: The Facts Are Such “Minor” Details. Impressions Rule!

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by Neil Godfrey

This is my response to James McGrath’s post, Mythicist Language is Designed to Make Lies Sound Truthful. Is McGrath really saying that a mythicist argument by Brodie is actually a set of “lies”? If so, that underscores the very point I have been making about how censorship works in academia — and McGrath is himself one of the most stalwart of guardians of “correct thoughts” in the arena of New Testament studies.

James McGrath continues to refer to even the most dry, factual posts and writings that lean towards favoring the Christ myth thesis as “rants” and “lies” — presumably solely on the grounds that any writing that leans to such a conclusion must by definition be a “rant” or a “lie”.

And THAT is exactly why it is an Orwellian joke that such a person should be considered as qualified to speak about censorship and academic freedom in the context of the Christ myth. THAT is how censorship in academia works. It is through this sort of institutional intellectual bullying — denigrating anyone who advances certain types of alternative views as peddlers of “rants” or “lies” — that we see censorship working in all sorts of areas. There is no need for a “conspiracy” — and of course McGrath likes to intimate in his same post that mythicists are “conspiracy peddlers”, too — which is a real rant and lie. Academia is not immune from this sort of subtle systemic censorship, and never has been, as Julien Benda pointed out so dramatically in another context with “The Treason of the Intellectuals”. What was true of France in his day has been just as true of the English speaking intelligentsia up to our own day. And if it is so blatant in the political arena, we should not be surprised if it is alive in the world of public religious convictions, too. Politics and religion, the most ideological of our academic “disciplines”.

The same old

Of course McGrath will protest that he has engaged with and rebutted mythicist arguments many, many times. He will wave his hand and invite readers to look at all those posts and comments he has made in the past.

I encourage everyone who reads such hand-waving invitations of his to hold him to account and insist he direct a reader to a specific post or comment. (Note that’s exactly what I did in my earlier post to which he is now responding.) I then encourage the same persons to follow up any related links that point to my or others’ replies to his “arguments”. Finally, I invite anyone who does this to let me know if I am wrong — if McGrath has indeed ever, at any point, engaged with any mythicist argument in a serious way — that is, with more than sarcasm, ridicule, or blatant false portrayal of the mythicist argument he claims to be addressing.

For that matter, I encourage anyone to ask McGrath to actually repeat what he understands any mythicist argument to be. I used to do that and only ended up having him declare me insane for expecting him to give him a direct, unequivocal and up-front answer. He is also on record as saying he refuses to repeat any mythicist argument for fear of lending it respectability.

That is, McGrath, the advocate of free-speech and , will not even repeat an argument he is criticizing. Does he take the same position with Young Earth Creationism or any other view he is critically analyzing?

Déjà vu all over again

The experiences of Thomas L. Thompson, Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and others know exactly how McGrath’s brand of intellectual intimidation (via character and intellectual slander) worked in the arena of Old Testament studies when so called “minimalists” began to question the historicity of the patriarchs, then David and Solomon, and even the biblical account of the United Kingdom of Israel and history of the biblical kingdom of Judah up to the time of the Assyrian conquests.

Who’s a “nobody” now?

McGrath says the Christ myth idea is “something that no one could really believe” — yet, of course, he has to explain, then, how a growing number of scholars are coming out and concurring in its plausibility. Note that McG does not say “no New Testament professor could really believe” but that “no-one could really believe”.

Let’s stop there for a moment and realize what McG is saying. He is saying “no-one” (presumably he means no-one of any sense or who is basically informed) could believe in the Christ myth theory. Never mind, as Richard Carrier points out,

Combine this with Brodie’s defection to mythicism, alongside Thompson’s, and (like Thompson’s) the publicly professed “historicity agnosticism” of Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD, and Kurt Noll, associate professor of religion at Brandon University, and Ehrman’s argument that only amateurs and outsiders take the Jesus Myth theory seriously is now in the dust. There is still, certainly, a litany of crank and amateur mythicist nonsense. But there is also a serious case to be made, by serious and well-qualified scholars. And they need to be paid attention to, not dismissed and mistreated, their arguments straw manned or ignored.

To these names we must also add other reputable scholars like Philip R. Davies who contributed to Is This Not the Carpenter? who are quite prepared to concede the plausibility of the Christ myth idea.

The new New Testament logic: Any two statements found in the same chapter are always found in a cause-effect relationship!

So when he reads of a reputable New Testament scholar who does believe this, he must argue through the “fog of war”. That is, it is sufficient for McGrath that quite distinct scenarios Brodie relates are found within a certain cluster of pages (“they were mentioned in the same part of the book”) for them to be connected.

This is an entirely new standard of academic argument, one I have never encountered before. One can, on this basis, disregard the details of what is written and creatively connect quite discrete incidents entirely on the basis that they are found “in the same part of the book”! So when Brodie describes an incident in which he was a student, and a few pages later he describes the response of potential publishers to something he submitted for publication, then according to McG’s methodology, what he experienced as a student somehow explains why a publisher declined to publish Brodie’s manuscript even though Brodie points out quite different reasons!

Because these two incidents are found within a certain page range in the book McGrath wants us to believe it is perfectly reasonable for us to think the two are connected in a direct cause-effect relationship. Why, what one studies as a student is what one later wants published, says McGrath. No doubt this is often true. But it is not valid to judge a particular incident on the basis of what is “commonly found”, especially when that particular incident comes with its own specific set of facts — that McGrath must, and does, simply ignore.

Never mind what Thomas L. Brodie wrote about each incident and the many things in between. The details — where the devils live — are irrelevant, it seems, in McGrath’s thinking. So McG writes:

Click through, read the post, see what is going on. Look carefully at what is being done. Look at how, despite my acknowledgment that I may have run characteristics of Brodie’s student work and his attempts at publication together (since they were mentioned in the same part of the book, and if such students publish anything, it tends to be work produced in the course of their studies), . . . 

McGrath simply cannot bring himself to accept the plain words of Brodie that I copied in my original post: that the publishers said they could not publish any work that argued Jesus was not an historical person.

To do so, McGrath would have to re-think his entire argument that it is mythicists’ conclusions, not their arguments, that are the reason they get no traction in academia.

Owellian deflection or McGrathian confusion?

Now McGrath is faulting me (in the above quote) for faulting me for supposedly trying to deflect attention from the “real issues” and turn readers’ attention to something minor.

. . . Godfrey continues to focus on such minor details in order to distract from the main point, which is that Brodie’s methods are problematic. They allow any conclusion one wishes to be drawn, as long as one has sufficient creativity to make connections between texts.

I have had occasion before to remark upon McGrath’s astonishing ability read without reading. I can understand. I recall times past when I read something with hostile intent only to later discover that I had completely missed the point of what I was “reading”.

My post, as I made very plain from the outset, was to address just a small cluster of factual errors in McGrath’s review. They were small in number but huge in significance. McGrath said that Brodie indicated his work was rejected by publishers because of lack of footnotes etc. I demonstrated that Brodie in fact said publishers explicitly stated they would not publish his work because it argued that Jesus was not historical. His reference to lack of footnotes had to do with an earlier period as a student, and he explicitly makes clear he had to apply all he learned as a student to make his work acceptable to publishers!

In other words, McGrath is now trying to argue black is white, a lie is truth, up is down. I call this Orwellian.

Facts are such minor details!

McGrath says that my point — that McGrath has completely misrepresented one facet of Brodie’s words, so seriously that such misrepresentation amounts to an outright (if unwitting) falsehood — is a “minor” one. The real issue is Brodie’s methodology!

But as Carrier pointed out in another post, and as I myself indicated I would argue in a future one, Brodie’s book is not in itself an argument for Jesus mythicism. It is an autobiographical journey of how he came to this view. So McGrath cannot argue on the basis of this book that his method is maniacal “parallelomania”. His detailed arguments are elsewhere. I know. In my preparation for the next post on Brodie’s memoir, I have had to turn to his other works to explain the arguments to which he is referring in that memoir.

And McGrath at no point validly demonstrates his point that Brodie’s argument is invalid. He does refer to one instance of Brodie referring to some points of commonality, but I will show in a future post that McGrath has once again overlooked what Brodie said in addition to those points. McGrath’s reading is astonishingly selective. One might almost think it is hostile.

More Kafkaesque than Orwellian

McGrath likes to say that mythicists have opportunities to advance their arguments in academia. But he also warns anyone who might be tempted to do so that their work will be considered a rant and a lie, or a case of invalid parallelomania. You are told that if you do not “laugh out loud” at any argument by a mythicist you are somehow not a part of any and every sane person’s company.

The arguments of mythicists will be read with hostile intent and any two discrete details in the same paper will somehow be connected by the reviewer in some fanciful cause-effect manner in order to find a reason to reject the paper. This is not Orwellian. This is Kafkaesque.

The reason mythicism doesn’t make it, McG says,

is not due to inappropriate censorship, but mythicists not following the rules of scholarly inquiry.

New Testament scholars have “rules of inquiry”? Like concocting a cause-effect relationship between data found within the same chapter simply because the data is in the same chapter and the reader can imagine a plausible connection — even though it ignores and blatantly contradicts the author’s explanations?

Give me the sound methods (not necessarily conclusions) that are found valid by the likes of Thompson, Davies, Droge, Noll, Price and even Brodie any day.




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Neil Godfrey

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23 thoughts on “McGrath: The Facts Are Such “Minor” Details. Impressions Rule!”

  1. I’m not sure I’d have the fortitude to carry on a conversation like this one, Neil. McGrath writes, “Godfrey continues to focus on such minor details in order to distract from the main point, which is that Brodie’s methods are problematic.” For someone who doesn’t want to distract from such main points, McGrath does little to steer any conversation towards such discussion. If being a little uncharitable, one might even think he’s right at home in this kind of heat-without-light situation.

    1. I don’t think there can be much doubt that he is. I quit reading his blog forever ago because the useful conversations were overwhelmed with content equivalent to a clever Usenet troll.

      Cheers, by the way. Haven’t seen your name in awhile.

  2. When academic biblical scholars believe in Yahweh god and Satan the devil and demons and angels – it only makes sense that they also believe in Jesus Christ. They will simply have to be ignored about historical Jesus as they are about the historical resurrection. Otherwise, we might as well just get down the bible and pray over it. I doubt that a believer’s mind can be changed by reasoning.

    1. To be fair to Dr. McGrath, I don’t think he believes in Yahweh, Satan, angels and demons. (To the consternation of many of his conservative readers.)

  3. Peter has a point. And so does Corky — no, I’m not thinking I’m engaging with McGrath here. I gave up trying to engage seriously with him long ago. (Old timers will remember how McG once twisted such a statement to mean I had no interest in engaging his arguments!) This was just a reply to have on record against his latest post. For the innocent bystanders, as it were. Though I pity such innocents when I reflect how I dashed this off after a physically exhausting day, noticing much to tidy up, etc.

    Looking forward to sleeping on a plane back home tonight after a week of exhausting physical labour on my old house in Queensland. Sure hope I don’t miss it — so much more to do before I leave for the airport.

    Then do the counter-claim, and write up more details of what happened re our little war with the Dr Watt, Time-Lord, saga.

  4. Has McGrath ever stated why he’s of the opinion that fairly presenting any argument grants it automatic respectability? I suspect he considers this position a parallel to Dawkin’s refusal to publicly debate creationists given his frequent conflation of mythicism with creationism which would certainly explain a lot. Ironically his stance would’ve warranted smothering the theory of evolution in the nest; so long as you can conceive of a nefarious motive behind a position and can’t imagine how anyone could hold to it in earnestly it would be unprofessional not to treat any arguments in its favor as inherently deceptive and dangerous.

    1. From past performance I expect McG would say he has explained his reasons many times, and that posts like mine are typical of Creationists who cry foul coz they believe their case has been misrepresented when dealt with by the scholars. He confuses avoidance of dealing with arguments with dealing with arguments. That’s why I ask interested reader to challenge McG to point to specific posts and comments and not just hand-wave a general direction.

      All of these tactics are a part of shoring up the gateway against any challenge to “right thinking” about the Jesus question.

  5. What amuses me is that by saying that mythicists make lies sound truthful, McGrath is admitting that mythicist arguments sound convincing! And if they sound convincing it must be because there are no evident flaws in them. So on what basis does he reject them? It can only be because of an a priori disposition which automatically labels mythicist arguments “lies” even before examination. Since they are already established as lies (demonizing those putting them forward), this justifies him not describing or addressing them, since who wouldn’t want to protect the vulnerable and deceivable mind from lies and deception?

    Wasn’t it McGrath (or someone on the Cakemix) who criticized Neil for having the ability to make his case sound convincing?

    1. Well, jeez, you make an outright refusal to even examine the arguments sound like a real show-stopper. You just need to sneak the arguments past the McGraths vigilantly policing the border of the Ivory Tower, avoid the Ehrmans inside brandishing their clout and threatening to ruin anyone caught straying from the permitted range of thought, complete the scavenger hunt of the “right” credentials to have before your arguments can be considered valid, secretly persuade many others who also completed the scavenger hunt and aren’t fearful for their job prospects, and voila! Then McGrath will be happy to take a look.

      Isn’t academic freedom wonderful?

  6. The rules of academic inquiry re: the existence of Jesus, as I see it:

    1. Do not study or entertain the idea that Jesus might not have existed.
    2. Do not engage any arguments supporting said idea.
    3. Rules 1 and 2 apply even if you make it clear that said idea is wrong.
    4. If you violate the above rules, you will be sacked.
    5. Otherwise, anything goes!

  7. I’ve been entertaining the idea of a mythical Jesus since I first became aware of it a few years ago. I’ve pointed out during this time in occassional comments here that I come from the perspective of seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls as the writings of the earliest Jewish Christians and James as the Teacher of Righteousness, as argued Robert Eisenman.

    Mythicism has caused me to re-examine Christian literature, and I feel grateful for the different perspective it offers, and find Doherty’s case, at least, to be respectably well thought out, whatever his credentials.

    While I remain unconvinced by mythicism, I think it’s a viable possibility, and one that could answer the Where’s Jesus? question in the DSS too.

    As someone who is convinced that the DSS were written by Jewish Christians, this is a critical question.

    So, whether or not there was an HJ, I still think the DSS are where the mystery of Jesus begins.

    1. One passage that Doherty points to as a possible reference to a scriptural origin of an MJ is Romans 16:25-27, where Paul says his gospel to the gentiles is “in keeping with the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the Eternal God.”

      This is similar to a passage in column 7 of the Habakkuk Pesher of the DSS describing the Righteous Teacher, “to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the prophets.”

      But unlike Paul’s gospel, in the Community Rule these “mysteries of marvelous truth” were only revealed to “those who have chosen the Way,” who were instructed to practice “faithful concealment of the mysteries of God.”

      I think this practice alone of keeping secrets (which is also found in post-70 Jewish Christian literature) explains the “absence” of an HJ in early Christian literature. Compare how little we know about pagan Mystery religions for the same reason.

      1. But there is a difference between concealing some element of a subject you are writing about, and presenting the subject in a way that allows no room for the element allegedly being concealed. Many passages in the NT epistles *exclude* any HJ from having been present, such as 1 Corinthians 15:44-49, or Titus 1:1-3, or Hebrews 8:4, or even (believe it or not) Romans 1:1-4. And many others declare that knowledge about Jesus has come from scripture alone, and so present it (as in Hebrews generally). As for the second century apologists pre-180, excluding Justin, they declare to their readers that they are giving a full and minute account of their faith, and yet present no HJ whatever, only a heavenly Logos, and a non-sacrificial one at that. All this goes beyond “keeping something secret.”

        1. Earl,

          The practice of concealing the mysteries of scripture from outsiders in the DSS (and later Jewish Christianity) is only a piece of the puzzle (nod to you intended) that makes me think the Scrolls are Jewish Christian.

          While I don’t think these “mysteries” alone are evidence of an HJ, when they are seen as part of the larger picture of the DSS being Jewish Christian, it makes me wonder what these mysteries could have been (whether an HJ, MJ or whatever).

          With the DSS, we have a sect that is messianic and law-keeping, that called itself the Way and the poor, practiced the New Covenant in a place called Damascus, whose leader’s scriptural interpretations were considered to be mysteries hidden in scripture and revealed by God in the last days.

          There is even a reference in the last column of the Damascus Document to “seeing God’s salvation” (literally “God’s yeshua” or God’s Jesus, if you will).

          So I would not only like to see the DSS on the table with the other writings we use when discussing Christian origins, I think there is some new ground here to “Doherty-ize” the Scrolls, and I wouldn’t mind seeing what would come of that.

          1. Earl,

            I want to add something concerning the passage at the end of the Damascus Document that mentions seeing “Jesus.” Vermes translates it as “God will forgive them and they shall see His salvation because they took refuge in His Holy Name.” Schechter has it as “God will make atonement for them and they will see His salvation for they put their trust in his holy name”.

            The “His salvation” that will be ‘seen’ is yeshuato in Hebrew, and this could as well say “His Yeshua” or “His Jesus.”

            When taken with the more obvious terms and ideas the Scrolls share with early Christianity (the New Covenant, the Way, Damascus, etc.), and in light of your theories, I find this to be an important passage. What is this “Jesus” that will be “seen,” and what is the “holy name” that the sect took refuge in?

            Column 2 of the Damsacus Document says, “He raised for Himself men called by name … and through his Anointed
            [this is singular in Hebrew and Schechter, but for some reason plural in Vermes] He made them know His Holy Spirit, and he is true, and the explanation of their names.”

            I don’t have time to finish this now. There is more to say on this matter concerning Acts. But cf. especially Acts 10:42-45.

            1. OK, I’m still trying to learn the formatting tricks here. I was responding to this statement in John’s post:

              The “His salvation” that will be ‘seen’ is yeshuato in Hebrew, and this could as well say “His Yeshua” or “His Jesus.”

              1. Doug,

                I’m only speculating that yeshuato “could” be seen as meaning “His Yeshua/Jesus,” in light of all the other similarities that the Scrolls share with early Christianity. Seeing this piece as a part of the larger picture of the DSS is the only “argument” I have.

                And I’m not suggesting (even if this really was the case) that that would mean that this “Jesus” is “our” Jesus as we understand “him” from other Christian texts (whether in an MJ way or an HJ way). I’m not sure who or what this DSS “Jesus” is, but it is there and should certainly be seen in light of all the other pieces of the DSS puzzle that go along with it.

            2. We shouldn’t shut out minds to live possibilities, of course, and I guess this is one. It just seems to me that common ideas between Christianity and the DSS is most parsimoniously taken as evidence against the apologetic claim there was something innovative about early Christianity. It’s another piece of data showing that there was really nothing new about this religion.

              I don’t find it far-fetched to suggest that Christians got the savior meme from Qumran, but I think it more likely that the notion predated both groups and both just ran with it, each in its own way.

              1. “I don’t find it far-fetched to suggest that Christians got the savior meme from Qumran, but I think it more likely that the notion predated both groups and both just ran with it, each in its own way.”


                While I don’t know a lot about the history of the development of the “savior meme” or how it came to Qumran, if one sees the DSS as Jewish Christian (though perhaps proto-Jewish Christian would be a better term), then you can see in the Scrolls exactly where “both groups” (assuming you mean Jewish Christians vs. Pauline Christians) “just ran with it, each in its own way.” Because in addition to all the other similarities between the Scrolls and early Christianity that I’ve mentioned here (and those are only the ones that stand out most), the Scrolls mention an enemy of the group called “the Liar,” who abandoned the Law of Moses and founded his own congregation on lies.
                Eisenman convinces me that this is Paul.

                To judge from his reviews of Eisenman’s books, Robert Price is on board with all of this, but he also seems to like Doherty’s ideas. I don’t know exactly what “Jesus” means for him (or Eisenman, really), but he must be somehow creating in his mind a synthesis of Eisenman and Doherty theories. While I’m not entirely on board with the latter, I’m thinking it’s time these two galaxies collided and we see what results from the combination.

                I would love to see Earl, even if only as a thought experiment, see the Scrolls like Eisenman and Price, and do his thing with them, because I can only go so far.

  8. So the Damascus Document is loaded with terms and concepts familiar from early Christianity, like the New Covenant;
    Damascus; the Way; salvation (“yeshua”); atonement; a singular messiah making known the holy spirit; the last days; people “called by name”; and God, the messiah and/or the holy spirit being “the explanation of their names” (which is not included in Vermes’s translation for some reason).

    This being “called by name” and “the explanation of their names” business is interesting. James 2:7 says that Jewish Christians bore “the noble name of him to whom you belong,” and the meaning of this is not clear either.

    The “name” theme is also predominant throughout Acts (e.g., 2:21; 4:12; 5:41; 9:14; 10:42-45; 22:16; 26:9).
    Sometimes the “name” refers to Jesus, sometimes Jesus Christ, sometimes the Lord Jesus and sometimes just the Lord. The root of this could be Amos 9:12, concerning the fallen tent of David, which is cited by James in Acts 15:16-18, and is also in the Damascus Document, along with the star prophecy from Numbers, concerning, among other things, “the Prince of the Congregation.”

    Acts also frequently mentions the Way, another term found in the Damascus Document and the DSS in general (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:42). Eisenman has referred to the Damascus Document as an anti-Acts, but the more I look at Acts and compare it to the former, the more Acts looks like an anti-Damascus Document. It uses the same concepts and themes as the former, but with an arguable agenda of increasing “gentilization.”

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