“It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues on from It is absurd to suggest. . . . It’s about a much lesser known anti-mythicist than Goguel but I will excuse myself for that anomaly on the grounds that Goguel’s book is freely available on the web and many would have read it already. Maurice Goguel is evidently R. Joseph Hoffmann’s favourite anti-mythicist; this time we look at the man in Larry Hurtado’s corner.

3D Book cover 2Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, turns to Herbert George Wood as the author of the once-and-for-all answer to mythicism.

But another reason for feeling it less than necessary to spend a lot of time on the matter is that all the skeptical arguments have been made and effectively engaged many decades ago. Before posting this, I spent a bit of time perusing my copy of H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, which was published in 1938. In it, Wood cites various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, and patiently and cordially engages the specifics of evidence and argument, showing that the attacks fail.

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate! (My emphasis)

Hurtado can no more imagine Jesus being non-historical than he can imagine believing the earth is flat. He would even find the very prospect of trying to demonstrate “the obvious” “a bit wearying”. Once again we see a theologian equate his discipline with complexities and certainties found in the hard sciences like astronomy. Anyone who disputes the claims of either is a kook. (We addressed this fallacy in the first post of this series.)

Evidently Hurtado has never felt any need to update himself with mythicist arguments of today, nor even does it appear he has ever acquainted himself with any of them at any time. He read a book published in 1938 and that clearly put the whole question at rest as far as he is concerned. That book, he informs us, “engages the specifics of evidence and argument”, so what else can possibly be said?

Herbert George Wood, 1938

The dedication of Wood’s book reads:

in the hope that both
may open their eyes

In his Preface Wood worries about young people being led astray by the Christ Myth theory of his day:

More young people than we often realize are troubled or misled by the suggestion that Jesus never lived. We cannot rightly ignore the subject. And revivals of interest in the Christ-myth are not unlikely.

In Chicago Wood visited a Russian Workers’ Club and observed the equation of the Christ-Myth idea with “any Marxist anti-God campaign” . . . .

and this book may serve as a kind of spiritual air raid precaution — a preservative against poison gas.

I have thought it best not to traverse the stock arguments of Christ-myth theorists

Recall that Goguel made it clear in his preface that he had no intention of actually engaging with the Christ myth arguments themselves. Wood begins the same way:

I have thought it best not to traverse all the stock arguments of Christ-myth theorists, but to examine in detail two propositions advanced by the late J. M. Robertson.

One must ask what scientist, or indeed any responsible educator, would try to teach flat-earth sceptics that the earth really is round and all the reasons we know this by ignoring their own questions and reasons they believe otherwise? I have seen several sites online addressing the belief that the moon-landing was a hoax: every one of them examines the specific arguments that some people believe it was a hoax. They don’t bypass the misconceptions or the misleading arguments. They engage them directly.








If anyone knows of moon-landing hoax theorists who have responded to such answers to the reasons for their beliefs I would like to know. It would be interesting to know if there are any responses that cast doubt on the explanations in the above pages. I suspect very little exists.

But so far we have seen two scholars who are upheld as having delivered final blows to mythicism beginning by making clear that they will not engage the arguments themselves, or at least not most of them. Now that surely is a curious phenomenon.

Personal attacks on Christ Myth theorists were acerbic enough back in the early twentieth century as some of them are today, but it is a refreshing change to see, as we did in one passage by Goguel, a respectful bow to the mythicist opponent:

I trust that in a vigorous criticism I have said nothing disrespectful in the memory of one whose services to liberalism in thought and politics were very genuine.

Something else very strange happens as we read Wood’s first chapter. We have come to this little book through a reference from Larry Hurtado who clearly declared mythicists to be as irrational and idiotic as moon-landing hoaxers. But H. G. Wood does not at first glance appear to agree with Hurtado on this point.

Georg Brandes
Georg Brandes

Yet during the last hundred years quite a number of really able men have persuaded themselves that the figure of Jesus is the figment of pious imagination. A case that convinced so distinguished a literary critic as Georg Brandes cannot be altogether negligible, and once the question has been raised, we cannot rightly ignore it. (p. 11)

Confronted by considerations such as these [i.e. many parallels to traditions concerning Jesus found in the pagan, Jewish and contemporary philosophical worlds] we must admit that the denial of the historicity of Jesus is not quite so irrational and fantastic as we probably at first supposed. (p. 15)

Wood curiously goes on to suggest that despite the apparently strong grounds for the raising of the question those who ask it are somehow remiss for thinking there is any uncertainty about Christian origins:

Christ-myth theories appeal to those who imagine that the origins of Christianity are wrapt in profound mystery.

Yet Wood follows that sentence with a very good reason for imagining Christian origins to be “wrapt” in uncertainty:

It must be admitted that owing to the nature of our sources many questions about the beginnings of Christianity cannot be answered with any certainty. The critical and indeed hypercritical scrutiny to which the New Testament documents are being constantly subjected throws into relief every obscurity, every ambiguity, every discrepancy and every limitation in the evidence at our disposal. (p. 16)

After justifying the case for such profound uncertainty, Wood then spins on a penny and declares that “the historian” will let none of this let him doubt that Christianity began with a man named Jesus in Galilee in the time of Tiberius, a man who became known as the Messiah who had been often and long prophesied to come among the Jews.

Only two pages earlier Wood had actually conceded that sound scholars (historians) seriously could legitimately declare they could know nothing at all certain about this man and it was even possible to seriously doubt that such a person bore the name of Jesus!

Think again of the many lives of Jesus that have been written during the last hundred years and that continue to pour from the press. Does the quest of the historic Jesus show any clear line of advance, any approximation to an agreed reading of his story? Schweitzer . . . suggests . . . that he remains a stranger and unknown. The picture drawn by liberal theologians, he claims, has been shown to be unhistorical. Guignebert who contributes the volume on Jesus to the great library on “The evolution of humanity,” . . . is very radical in his scepticism. He believes in a historic person behind the Christian movement, but he doubts whether we can be sure even that his name was Jesus! [Compare Would the Historical Jesus of Nazareth Really Have Been Named Jesus of Nazareth?] Modern interpreters present Jesus now as a sublime ethical teacher and now as an apocalyptic dreamer, at one time a convinced pacifist and at another as a social revolutionary. Where interpretations differ so violently, must not the controlling facts be so few and uncertain, and does it not seem that writers pick and choose from the evidence of the gospels just those items which confirm their prejudices? (p. 14, my emphasis)

Wood appears to be acknowledging the serious grounds for raising the question of the historicity of Jesus while at the same time denying there are any serious grounds for raising it. It’s not good reading if one already has a head-ache.

But after raising the reasons for doubt (and then denying any reason for doubt) Wood turns to imputing an equally contradictory mix of motives supposedly driving people to embrace the Christ-myth idea:

Christ-myth theories find favour with rationalists who regard religion as an illusion, and with mystical idealists who regard every entanglement of religion with historic fact as a degradation of a pure spiritual faith. Those who wish to destroy religion and those who wish to refine it unite in the endeavour to prove Jesus to be a fictitious creation.

Since it is unlikely many Christians will be predisposed to being persuaded Jesus was not historical of course we must expect to find most of those who are open to that possibility will be those are not religious and those whose religiosity is not grounded in the truth of historical reports. Whether some such people (I doubt all anti-Christians or “mystical idealists” ever embraced mythicism then any more than they do today) are motivated to disbelieve in the historicity of Jesus by their ideological predisposition or whether they are the relative few who come to disbelieve in Jesus’ historicity simply because they are more open to the arguments than orthodox believers is not a question Wood considers.

So rather than draw other conclusions that might be quite reasonable from the above, Wood unfortunately infers motives that are either sinister or unrealistic. It’s called ad hominem.

Coincidentally we only recently addressed James Crossley’s rejection of the Great Men view of history. He is expressing the current view of most historians today. So it is interesting to see how the other side of this question was viewed by Wood in the 1930s:

Moreover, those who resent the role of great men in history, and who wish to find the heroes of the human story in communities, classes or masses, are ready to believe that Jesus is at best a lay-figure and most probably the mythical embodiment of the aspirations and desires of some oppressed class, or of a frustrated generation of men. Students of religion, impressed with the influence of collective emotion, as well as sociologists of various schools, accept Christ-myth theories which exalt the group and deny the significance of the individual personality. (p. 18)

Wood then proceeds to present mini biographies of prominent mythicists of his day or earlier, and not unlike Maurice Casey, though with less venom than Casey, singles out some detail from their past that he construes to be a negative motivating factor in each of them coming to reject the historicity of Jesus.

J. M. Robertson

The main Christ-myth advocate he addresses in his book, J. M. Robertson, is faulted on the following grounds:

For J. M. Robertson, the Christian religion was identified with intellectual dishonesty. He saw in it nothing but a bar to scientific and moral progress. Belief in the supernatural in any shape or form was, in J. M. Robertson’s judgment, an illusion, for he had embraced the two strange irrational dogmas of popular rationalism. He believed first that there is no intelligence in the universe higher and other than our own, and second that we, intelligent human beings, are the accidental outcome of natural forces devoid alike of intelligence and purpose. He did not at first question the historical existence of Jesus. (p. 19)

So Wood effectively admits that rejection of the historicity of Jesus is not an inevitable consequence of philosophical naturalism. Why should it be? Why should any nonreligious person have any interest or need to reject the existence of any person in history? They don’t believe he was divine or performed miracles. What’s the problem? No doubt many others with the same philosophical outlook as Robertson remained agnostics or did accept Jesus’ historicity. But Wood is unable to accept the idea that Robertson’s motives are honest or entirely rational simply because he does not agree with his rationalist stance.

Wood next takes to task other mythicists who saw genuine religion as something much higher than any historical contingencies.

If with Tolstoi we regard the Sermon on the Mount as containing the essence of Christianity, we may also with Tolstoi regard it as a matter of indifference whether the Sermon represents the actual teaching of a real person or not. The appeal of the Good Samaritan remains unaltered, whether Jesus actually said it or whether it is merely put in his mouth. (p. 21)

I have pointed out in the past that Albert Schweitzer himself was not far from such a view although he did believe in a historical Jesus. (See, for example, the opening quotation in my post, Faith in History.) Paul Louis Couchoud, a mythicist of the early twentieth century, likewise held Christianity in high esteem. Most recently we have seen Thomas Brodie remain a true Christian (according to his own reckoning) despite his mythicist views.

Wood comes to his sadly personal disparagement of those who are fanning this “poisonous gas” and the secular systems of thought that influence them:

The exponents of the Christ-myth appear then to be guided and inspired by presuppositions of the kind which we have just outlined — presuppositions drawn from rationalism and philosophic idealism, from sociology and morbid psychology. (p. 25)

Morbid psychology? Wood is referring to the medical doctor Couchoud’s acquaintance with neurotic patients. It was this association, Wood tells us, that inspired his mythicist idea that Christianity started with visions among those who came to be known as apostles.

Wood admits well respected names like Sir James G. Frazer and Bertrand Russell were at least open to the possibility of the non-existence of Jesus but explains away their agnosticism as a symptom of their sympathy with the rationalist spirit that clearly underpinned most Christ-myth arguments.

Wood then finds fault with a rationalist press publishing only material that is hostile to Christianity. He also points to the way there are some people who always prefer to give credence to the bizarre and sensational. This is, of course, quite a contradictory claim to his complaint that “pure rationalism” has tended to be behind the Christ-myth theories. Wood is resorting to invalid rhetoric to muddy the waters before he commences to address two specific points of Robertson’s arguments.

Lastly, there is deep-seated in many of us a real antagonism to Jesus and particularly to the position claimed for him as mediator between God and man. The whole idea of mediation is revolting to many minds. . . . Even to acknowledge a debt to Jesus as a creative power in history is repugnant to some men. Many are strengthened in their antagonism to Jesus, by the sentimental devotion that has gathered round his person and his cross. . . . There is such a thing as Jesus-olatry which offends both men of intellect and men of spiritual discernment. . . . Moreover, the demands put into his lips are stern and inexorable. If would be easier to evade the challenge if we could dissociate them from the actualities of history. (p. 27)

From this point on Wood begins to address Robertson’s thesis that has little relevance to any debates today. The role of mystery plays and a pre-Christian Jesus/Joshua god are no longer part of the academic environment.

This is the book that Larry Hurtado tells us said it all decades ago. He read (or perused) Did Jesus Really Live? and decided mythicism has nothing more sane to offer the world than anything we hear from the flat-earthers.

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20 thoughts on ““It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist”

  1. H. G. Woods’ main argument seems to be against Reason itself. Is it necessary for a scholar therefore to pay any attention to H. G. Wood at all?

    Wood seems to see everything in terms not of reason, but of sentiment: 1) the reason we are supposed to hold to religion is sentimental no doubt. And 2) the only motivation Wood can see for opposing, is the sentiment of jealousy or resentment it seems.

    Yet sentiment is notoriously unreliable. Because of this, even the Bible itself warned that “the heart is deceitful above all things.” For that reason even the Bible began to tell us to “reason together.”

    Woods’ argument therefore here seems merely sentimental – and unreliable. There is no real intellectual or rational argument there. Indeed it seems here that Wood rejects Reason itself on principle.

    Therefore we can safely ignore H.G. Wood it seems.

  2. Prof. Hurtado is willing to acknowledge the origin of Christianity in a form of apocalyptic Judaism which morphed / became unorthodox ie. treated a Jew as co-regnant with YWH, later known as Jesus Christ…a la the Two Powers in Heaven book by A F Segal. So not all bad.

  3. “The exponents of the Christ-myth appear then to be guided and inspired by presuppositions…”

    Sounds like Wood was the pioneer of the ad hominem in Christ mythicist bashing. Hurtado, Ehrman, McGrath, and the Rabbi all say pretty much the same thing today. You would think they could at least be more original.

  4. various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, […] the attacks fail.”

    So, according to Hurtado, if you suggest Jesus didn’t exist historically, you are “attacking”. I wonder what it is Hurtado thinks you are “attacking”?

    1. Good point. Conservative Christians like Hurtado (and in my books Hurtado and McGrath are conservative Christians though I realize Americans would laugh at that idea and insist that at least McGrath is very “liberal” — only shows how far apart we are on what constitutes conservative belief) do seem to see mythicism as an “attack” on their faith. There are few like Thomas Brodie. And from the perspective of one who devotes his intellectual life to defending or exploring his or her faith, or course they will see any rationalist challenge and truly sceptical spirit (a healthy thing) as an “attack”.

  5. I did see one program a few years ago that suggested the moon-landings were a hoax, but I spent most of the program with the sound turned off, watching, of all things, the moon dust. Also kept repeating: “One-sixth gravity, no atmosphere.”

    Kept thinking moon dust behaves a lot like Earth desert dust. Just as a contrast/comparison after that program I watched videos of people running through deserts.

    Guess no one really has a grasp on how dust would act in no atmosphere and only one-sixth gravity…though you’d think moon dust would go six times higher and not act like it was dispersing in atmosphere.

    Just a thought.

    1. Of course, exactly that very point is discussed by people who think the Moon landing is real, and it was simple to find a Google search addressing the dust argument.

      Contrast the detail of responses to moon hoax arguments with the inability of Ehrman, McGrath , Hurtado to address mythicist arguments in any detail.

  6. Just a typo, so there’s no problem there of course. The problem is really Woody. And his attack on Reason itself.

    There have been many attacks on Reason in the name of Art and the Humanities especially. But also in the name of Religion and Revelation. Whenever anyone noticed logical problems with religion particularly, then many apologists began to attack Reason itself.

    However, here’s a current article on Karl Barth’s theological attack on Reason – and some problems with that attack: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/06/karl-barths-failure

    Art and Religion have long attacked Reason, in favor of intuition or revelation or miracle. However today many of us are in a post-postmodernist mood. And we should remind everyone that science for example, never gave up on Reason so much.

    In fact, when a writer like Wood abandons reason, we and Analytic Philosophy might simply say that he has left the arena of serious rational scholars. So that Wood and those who follow him should simply be accused of irrationalism. Or more simply, they should be accused of being irrational.

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