Comedian Tim Minchin Explains McGrath’s Problem with Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

The honorable associate professor of Butler has once again posted mischievous assertions that I wrote things I did not at all write in my recent post, When “Trusting the Expert Consensus” is Wrong. It makes perfect sense that James McGrath would want to misrepresent this post of mine since in it I explain why the sorts of appeals to authority that the theologian himself is fond of making are fallacious. (This is a common tactic of McGrath, Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann, and a handful of others.)

So there is no rule against calling McGrath a mendacious idiot?

Professor Paul Krugman could almost have had James McGrath’s (and the other names above) track records of responding to mythicists in mind when he wrote in an article, Do You Know Who I Am?,

But academic credentials are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having your ideas taken seriously. If a famous professor repeatedly says stupid things, then tries to claim he never said them [see, for example, the “McGrath Wisely pretends he never said that” refrain in Carrier’s post], there’s no rule against calling him a mendacious idiot — and no special qualifications required to make that pronouncement other than doing your own homework.

Conversely, if someone without formal credentials consistently makes trenchant, insightful observations, he or she has earned the right to be taken seriously, regardless of background.

English: Tim Minchin at the Melbourne Comedy F...
Tim Minchin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If only the honorable theologian had taken time out from watching Dr Who to listen to the occasional address of Tim Minchin that he gave on the day he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters [See the video clip at this post]. He would surely have come to his senses and grasped what I actually wrote and never have ventured to resort, yet once again, to blatant falsehoods.

Tim Minchin’s point number five:

5. Be Hard On Your Opinions

A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

Note again that last paragraph about nuance.

So when I wrote in the conclusion to my post:

If I were associated with a blog called LessWrong and were devoted to refining the art of human rationality I would counsel that non-experts should adopt an agnostic position on the historicity of Jesus.

McGrath distorted that into my saying:

Interestingly, even Neil Godfrey agrees with Mehta on one point, that if you aren’t an expert in the field of historical Jesus studies, then it is better to be agnostic about it rather than hold firmly to a view you cannot defend.

Perhaps the section where Mehta actually said that in the video has since been wiped because I can’t find it. I don’t hear Mehta at any point saying that if you aren’t an expert in this field that it is better to be an agnostic. I hear him say over and over that the question of Jesus’ historical existence is unimportant and that atheists he personally knows are divided on the question. That’s all.

McGrath might well be interested to read here that I do indeed agree with Mehta when he says that the question of the historicity of Jesus does not matter for any of us personally today. To me, the only interesting question is how Christianity originated, and whether an historical person or not is needed for that answer is what the debate is about. It’s about what makes the best sense of the evidence; it’s not about proving or disproving the historicity of a certain historical figure.

McGrath would appear not to agree. For him proving Jesus is the most important thing; for me, I don’t care. What interests me is the best explanation for the evidence. When scholars like Ehrman write completely contradictory things about the evidence then I know they are trying to do more than one thing. They are probably trying to do contradictory things.

So, for example, when Ehrman insists that the reference in Galatians to the James being the brother of the Lord proves the historicity of Jesus, and then elsewhere says we can’t rely on the authenticity of our text of Galatians [thanks to vinnyjh57’s comment], I have reasonable grounds for thinking he has contradictory agendas. He wants to be a genuine scholar but that conflicts with his desire to prove the historicity of Jesus.

This sort of thing does not give us lay folk reason to “defer to the authority of the consensus” among bible scholars on the question of Jesus’ historicity.

Next, McGrath fails to grasp the nuance implicit in my conditional clause, “If I were associated with a blog called LessWrong and were devoted to refining the art of human rationality . . .” That conditional clause, coming as it did to introduce my conclusion, should have alerted McGrath to realizing I was not making a blanket statement about all non-professional scholars. He knows very well that I believe that it is quite possible for amateurs to become even more expert in some aspects of the question than many theologians who have never stopped to address seriously or in depth all the arguments related to Jesus’ existence. The nuance would have informed him that I was referring in my conclusion to the same people addressed in the original blog post — anyone who has not studied the question seriously.

So already McGrath has failed to grasp nuance. He has failed to grasp the point Mehta was making and the one I was addressing from the start of my own post. He wants to extrapolate from what each of us says or writes in order to make us say what suits his own agenda.

The real howler

If I was perplexed at McG’s opening reference to what I wrote, I was reminded I was dealing with a “Krugman idiot” when I read the following:

Of course, Godfrey is wrong about Ehrman’s book being the first tackling of mythicism in the field, just as he tends to be wrong about most things related to this topic.

Here is what I actually wrote about Ehrman’s book being the supposed “first” of something:

Besides, even the non-expert (who reads Bart Ehrman, say) can see at a glance that scholars have not sat down to thrash out the question of Jesus’ historicity.

Ehrman even says his own book is the first attempt in his entire field to do anything like that.

So we have the admission from the expert that Jesus’ historicity has been assumed. Other experts (e.g. Thomas Thompson) say the same thing.

The following day I added this comment:

Early twentieth century also saw questionings of the historicity of Jesus and there were scholarly rebuttals (e.g. Shirley Jackson Case). Those few responses by scholars have been held up as the final word. There has been no debate, no scholarly critique or engagement with those works. So Ehrman can even say he never knew anyone questioned Jesus’ historicity till recently. In other words, he is telling us that scholars as a whole at no time engaged with, or took any notice of, those few who did attempt responses to the Christ Myth theory.

McGrath, who has apparently not yet been exposed to the wisdom of Tim Minchin, interpreted my words as saying that Ehrman’s book was the first to tackle mythicism!

He missed the nuance that should have made him see that I was, in fact, criticizing Ehrman for thinking his book was the first!

And he missed the nuance that should have informed him that Ehrman’s error actually stands as evidence for the mythicist complaint (and mine) that scholars have always assumed the historicity of Jesus and never seriously engaged the questions to which Ehrman (and Shirley Jackson Case and others) have claimed to address.


Given the track record, I expect McGrath to deny he wrote what he did or to simply ignore this post or find more ways of ignoring nuance in his obsession with having others truly believe that God acted in history through a historical Jesus and that certain scholars have not built their careers on a  groundless assumption.


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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Comedian Tim Minchin Explains McGrath’s Problem with Mythicism”

  1. Just for the record, when I first read that post, it sounded to me like you were saying Ehrman’s book was the first scholarly attempt to address mythicism. However, having followed you for awhile, I knew that you knew this wasn’t so and I realized that you were talking about what Ehrman was saying about his book. However, I think someone who (unlike McGrath) wasn’t familiar with your blog could easily get the wrong impression.

  2. McGrath is now fuming about the sheer duplicity of Neil Godfrey quoting Bart Ehrman. Gosh, don’t amateur bloggers know that the scholarly academys if praising, not quoting? How can McGrath write articles about scholarly consensus if people are going to descend to the disgusting habit of quoting scholars?

    Although, McGrath is now conceding he ‘mistook’ something, which is McGrath speak for ‘Got it wrong again….’.

    I think that is as close to an apology as you will get from McGrath for his lies.

  3. elsewhere says we can’t rely on the authenticity of our text of Galatians

    Interesting. I’ve just got my library to get hold of Leppä’s thesis on Luke’s Critical Use of Galatians.

    Do we have any idea how early marginalia notes started appearing? If Luke‘s knowledge of James as the brother of the Lord stems from Galatians the note would have had to have been incorporated very early.

    1. It appears that the passage was not found in Marcion’s version of Galatians. That would prove nothing since it’s the sort of passage Marcion would not accept as genuine. What is strange, however, is that Irenaeus did not use this passage to contradict Marcion, or to add more evidence to his accusations that Marcion was a liar and distorter of the Scriptures. See the argument by Howell Smith here. From Irenaeus’s silence (a silence hits us because it is so unexpected if the passage were known to Irenaeus it does certainly appear that Irenaeus knew of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles.

  4. Question: who was the first known person to have come up with the “Earl Doherty version” of the Jesus myth theory? after it was eradicated by Gospel – embracing Christianity that is.

    1. Hi Tal,

      A version of Earl Doherty’s Christ myth thesis — that Jesus was entirely a divinely revealed heavenly being and that the crucifixion was a spiritual event — was developed by Paul-Louis Couchoud in the 1920s and his work, The Creation of Christ, was translated into English in 1939. I complete set of links to Couchoud’s work (and Doherty’s acknowledgement that Couchoud’s work had been the closest to his own) is set out at http://vridar.info. You will also see that there are significant differences and directions between Doherty and Couchoud, too.

      I do deeply apologize for jumping to a negative conclusion about your question earlier. I have deleted that little exchange from the record now. If you are new to this scene it might be helpful if I explain that there are a handful of obnoxious bigots “out there” who seem to have made it their vocation to denigrate Doherty at every possible opportunity, and one of their tacks is to falsely accuse him of plagiarizing the works of others. Several times they have attempted to post comments here under various guises. I am so relieved you were not one of these and that you challenged my initial response in the way you did.

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