Fear in the Heart of a Bible Scholar

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by Neil Godfrey

Valerie Tarico
Valerie Tarico (Did she really use the R word in a public article?) Her article originally appeared in AlterNet under a different title.

The Professor of Religion who blogs at Exploringourmatrix is a widely respected source of disinformation about mythicism and mythicists. He won accolades from readers for his recent dressing down of Richard Carrier and this blog has from time to time drawn attention to some of his more remarkable triumphs in exposing just how devious mythicists really are through his manufacture of mythicist claims that can be found nowhere in any mythicist publication or website by any other readers, not even mythicists themselves.

Our favourite Professor has done it again with The Myth of Mythicism’s Newness. In this post the Professor betrays a real fear that word might get around that mythicism is undergoing a “resurgence” today comparable to the popularity it experienced in the early twentieth century. Curiously the article he accuses of spreading this dastardly rumour makes no such comparison at all. But that is the nature of fear. It jumps at shadows and sees monsters in the dark.

The title alerts us to the Professor’s insight into just how ignorant he has realized mythicists are: they don’t even know the long heritage of their own arguments. If you ever heard Doherty or Carrier or any post on this blog or even the less scholarly advocates like Acharya S covering the history of the Christ Myth debate in the early twentieth century you are wrong. The Professor is writing history now and correcting our memories by suggesting that mythicists think they have come up with something new.

Who has (really) read Shirley Jackson Case?

To remind readers of the depth of the ignorance of mythicists as a whole he writes:

The year before his book on the subject was published, Shirley Jackson Case wrote an article on the question of the historicity of Jesus. I suspect that few modern mythicists have read either.

Another professor, R. Joseph Hoffmann, has made a similar claim and informed readers that all mythicist arguments today were answered long ago by Shirley Jackson Case.

Earl Doherty is notorious for being such a widely read mythicist and for being so unscholarly as to actually write in everyday language and post his arguments for free on his website where any lay person can read them. Anyone who spends more than a few minutes investigating what he has written on his website and had posted there for well over a decade now cannot avoid bumping into Doherty’s three webpages addressing at seven critiques of mythicism dating back to Shirley Jackson Case’s 1912 criticism.

Peter Kirby himself (I believe) first made the Shirley Jackson Case book publicly available online in 2003 and it has ever since been accessible to anyone with a reasonable search engine.

This blog has also done its bit to alert readers to Case’s criticism and made its own commentary on it. See, for example, posts in 2009, 20102012, 2013. I began a series (2014) on these early critics of what was more commonly called the Christ Myth theory in their day but bypassed Shirley Jackson Case since it was quite some years since I had read his book and my co-blogger Tim (who is not a mythicist) was at that time either reading or about to read it and thus a better candidate to write that post. (Hint, Tim . . . 😉 (I wrote about other critics who have been recommended today by various scholars worried about mythicism: Goguel, Wood, Howell Smith and others.

Professor McGrath’s sentence needs to be turned around:

I suspect few modern critics of mythicism have read Shirley Jackson Case — either his article or his book.

If they had done so they would have realized very quickly that Case’s critiques are for most part simply irrelevant to most mythicist arguments today. Those were the days of scholarly explorations that have since been superseded or in some cases completely discarded. Mythicists were engaging in large part with the ideas and possibilities emerging from the History of Religions School of those days. (They were dealing with the scholarship of their time just as mythicists today like Price, Carrier, Thompson, Doherty all deal with contemporary scholarship.) Believing Christian Scholars who hold to the mainstream views of their guild have moved on since then and so have advocates of the Christ Myth theory.

Don’t misunderstand, however. While most of Shirley Jackson Case’s critique was directed at ideas that very few mythicists today espouse (just as Case’s own peers have moved on and no longer entertain many ideas that were in vogue back around the turn of the previous century) there are a number of core Christ Myth arguments that have remained constant (just as there are certain views among mainstream scholars today that remain unchanged since the nineteenth century.) Unfortunately it is in this area that Shirley Jackson Case lets us down. He fails to address those core arguments with any more seriousness (or even simply ignoring them) than has been done by Bart Ehrman or Maurice Casey or Joseph Hoffmann or James McGrath himself.

How many mythicists are hiding under the bed?

Take a look at it, see how many mythicists there were a century ago, and then let me know if you think that recent claims of a mythicist “resurgence” are justified in our time, as opposed to in 1911, when the ideas were not new but had seen a growth in the attention they were getting from scholars.

Lazy professor. I bet he never counted them himself. (Did he even do anything more than skim the article?) Here they are, a complete list of the names addressed by Shirley Jackson Case in the article:

  • Albert Kalthoff (1907)
  • W. B. Smith (1894, 1911)
  • J. M. Robertson (1900, 1903)
  • Arthur Drews (1909-1926)
  • P. Jensen (1906-1910)

I presume Bruno Bauer does not count since Case only mentions him in passing and he died a generation before 1911.

Now Professor McGrath’s fear shows. He writes:

Take a look at it, see how many mythicists there were a century ago, and then let me know if you think that recent claims of a mythicist “resurgence” are justified in our time, as opposed to in 1911, when the ideas were not new but had seen a growth in the attention they were getting from scholars.

“Claims of a mythicist ‘resurgence'”. The link is to another post by McGrath where he begins:

In a recent online article, Valerie Tarico suggests that “a growing number of scholars” are concluding that there was no historical Jesus.
It isn’t clear to me that Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Thomas Brodie represent a “growing number” compared to past generations.

There it is. Valarie Tarico had the audacity to publicly post that there were “a growing number of scholars” who are concluding that there was no historical Jesus. She might as well be Chicken Little crying out “The sky is falling!”

Curiously McGrath only deigns to mention three contemporary scholars who have been part of the current “resurgence” in interest in mythicism. They are all biblical or ancient history scholars. This way the name most heavily referenced by Tarico, David Fitzgerald, is avoided altogether.

Yet the five names against which McGrath compares the current crop include only one theologian: Albert Kalthoff. The other names that attracted so much attention in their own day from hostile theologians were not biblical scholars at all.

  • Smith was a professor of mathematics;
  • Robertson was a journalist, politician and rationalist;
  • Drews was a philosopher and historian;
  • Jensen an ethnologist.

So let’s be reasonable even at the risk of fomenting more fear in the hearts of Professors of Religion today and list the prominent names attracting the attention of anti-mythicist biblical scholars today:

There is professor of German, G. A. Wells, who can claim much credit for today’s interest in mythicism despite his more recent demonstration that “mythicists” are not uniformly incapable of changing their minds. But if you don’t think he should be added there are more.

Frank Zindler is a professor of biology and geology. Thomas L. Thompson and Philip R. Davies are biblical scholars who are on record as calling for their peers to be genuinely open to the arguments of mythicists. Herman Detering and Roger Parvus are others who deny the historicity of Jesus. Alvar Ellegård (died 2008), Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Goteburg, published a case for Jesus being based on a figure who had lived a century before the Common Era. Roger Viklund is another Swedish scholar who disputes Jesus’ historicity. Earl Doherty needs no introduction and Price and Carrier have both acknowledged how much they owe to his publications. Jay Raskin is another PhD and Raphael Lataster a (published) PhD candidate who argue Jesus was not historical. There are several others: See Who’s Who Among Mythicists and Mythicist Sympathizers/Agnostics. Nor must we overlook biblical scholars Kurt Noll and Arthur Droge.

I don’t know if the interest in mythicism is stronger and more widespread than it was back in the 1910s, but on the basis McGrath’s own method of counting there really do appear to be more scholars from within the field of biblical studies and the relevant historical era questioning the existence of Jesus than there were a century ago. 

And the Professor conceded that the Christ Myth theory was treated more seriously then than today:

[T]he idea had more credence than it does now, because we had less evidence about ancient Judaism than we do now, not to mention rampant antisemitism that preferred a Jesus borrowed from non-Jewish deities, to a Jesus who was a real Jewish human being.

Insinuation of anti-semitism. Maurice Casey dragged up the same tactic. Godwin’s law. To stoop that low one must surely be desperately frightened of something. The idea that knowledge of ancient Judaism should be some sort of antidote to mythicism is another choice bit of professorial buffoonery. The arguments of Thompson, the questions of Davies, much of the argument in Doherty’s, Carrier’s and Brodie’s works is grounded in current scholarly understandings of Second Temple Judaism and its literature. Some people are too afraid to actually read mythicist arguments with anything other than hostile intent. Disinformation inevitably follows.

The real fear

All Valerie Tarico had to do to instil shocked alarm in a Professor of Religion was to publicly write the mathematical fact that

A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity.

I suspect the worry arose form the words finding their way into the title of the post. There they attract attention. People might read the article. Ideas might spread. Questions might be asked. A few theologians might lose some of their public relevance.

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Neil Godfrey

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27 thoughts on “Fear in the Heart of a Bible Scholar”

    1. Not secular, but he does speak for many when he insists his personal faith does not conflict with his methods of historical scholarship — methods that he insists are in accord with the standards of secular scholarship.

  1. I was to give Dr. McGrath for something, his vehemence and illogical rhetoric against mythicists perked my interest in the theories, so without him, I may never have read these ideas.

    When I hear defensiveness, I really start to wonder.

    Mind you, I like a lot of James’s other stuff (well, though I have no interest in Dr. Who etc). And I greatly admire his impact on conservative Christianity.

    1. I have sometimes wondered if James McGrath may be part of a mythicist conspiracy. He is really a mythicist who is carrying on the way he does to discredit anti-mythicists and spark interest in the mythicist arguments. (My tongue is glued to my cheek, of course.)

      Seriously, though, I agree with you. Yes, I sometimes see what reads like an over-the-top hostile review of a book, for example, Hurtado’s visceral attacks on Daniel Boyarin, and I am only made all the more curious to read their targets for myself to see what upset them so much. (Not that I think Boyarin doesn’t have areas where he can’t be criticized, but it is clear he does very efficiently undercut some major planks in Hurtado’s own ideas.)

  2. You talk about ‘Mythicist Arguments’. What arguments, nothing. Just a bunch of atheists exhibiting their hyper-skepticism combined with their ability to fabricate fictional scenarios. What they lack is an ability to engage in informed historical imagination while overcoming their philosophical prejudice that stems from their personal interest to justify their faith position (i.e. atheism). Brodie may be an exception of but he is just a victim his own parallelomania. If you think there are good arguments could you please list the specific arguments you have in mind.

    1. What do you have to fear that you cannot respond with a reasoned argument against the very public arguments of mythicism? Why do scholars seem to be very worried by this interest if it is without any foundation?

      Do you want arguments or just a series of dot-point conclusions without their supporting arguments?

      Perhaps a series of dot-point assertions and rhetorical questions are good enough as arguments to support your views but that’s not how real history makes its case.

      Have you ever made the effort to actually read and “engage in informed historical” discussion with any of them? Or do you excuse yourself from this task by accusing them all of having some crass anti-social motivation?

      Why were Brodie’s arguments considered worthy of peer-review publication before he “came out” as a mythicist but were suddenly relegated to “parallelomania” after he did?

      Do you know what “parallelomania” really is? Have you ever read Sandmes who popularized the term?

      What do you make of R. M. Price and Herman Detering and Rene Salm and Raphael Lataster or me here — where is there any evidence of our “faith position” unfairly influencing our arguments? Can you identify any argument similarly motivated in the works of Doherty, or Thompson (who I understand is not an atheist either) or Carrier?

    2. This blog has posted very detailed arguments by Roger Parvus and Earl Doherty. Why don’t you respond to them? You have also no doubt (??) seen the extensive argumentation by Doherty on his website and read the several online books by mythicists, past and contemporary, freely available.

      I have also posted many times arguments that I believe are good grounds for believing the gospels (including their central character) are literary creations that at no point drew upon any historical reality. You are welcome to respond to those. Would you like the links? Or you can find them yourself in the Archives & Index of Topics here.

  3. “The arguments of Thompson, the questions of Davies, much of the argument in Doherty’s,
    Carrier’s and Brodie’s works is grounded in current scholarly understandings of Second Temple
    Judaism and its literature.”

    Personally, I don’t find the term “mythicist” a very responsible catch-all term for my current
    view of Christian origins in context of “2nd Temple Judaism and it’s literature”.

    I am hoping that “mythicist” is abandoned, and the emphasis will be on “literature” where I can
    tell someone, ” I have a ‘literarian’ position in regards to the ‘character’ of Jesus “. My readings
    of posts on Vridar have widened my understanding of Christian origins, as well as Judaism and
    Hellenism. A form of “panbabylonism” in regards to the documented historical influences on so
    called “Judaic” literature, is not a ridiculous perspective if I consider that the Hebrews are clearly
    woven together by relatively stronger cultures from all cardinal directions.

    I have a hunch that post-exilic Judaites could be classified as “Persians” rather than “Jews”.

    Comparing Biblical literature to “myth” is quite justifiable in light of how invading cultures are
    significantly responsible for Judaism during the 1st century, and what we have today. I can
    also apply the same comparison to Christianity because of it’s relationship to Judaism, and
    how it is influenced by Greco-Roman theology/philosophy. I am sure Vridar readers are
    relatively aware of how deeply interdependent ancient ANE/Mediterranean religions are with
    each other. For McGrath, or anyone else who dismisses root concepts behind the “mythicist”
    position, is to deny a basic fact about cultural phenomena.

    Another problem with pairing the words “Jesus” and “mythicist” is assuming that the former
    is the actual founder of Christianity. Based on my general research, I hold the current view
    that the 1st hintings and whispers of an “anointed”, chosen king of the Israelites, who unifies
    them against external outsiders or enemies designated by YHWH, are found in Exodus, and
    conclude with Joshua. Christianity is just another term for “messianism” or “those who follow
    the anointed one”. I think the earliest Christians were interpreting what we now know as myth,
    but not explicitly creating a myth. There is a well known argument for some form of “mishnah”
    or another type of interpretive, teaching literature, and Robert Price has a good view on it.

    Another analogy (atleast in my mind) is the “Eternal Champion” of Moorcock’s novels.

    1. I have long been ambivalent about applying the term “mythicist” to myself. It does not properly represent what I’m really interested in doing. I can see no grounds for believing Christianity began with a historical Jesus. All the evidence points away from that model. The arguments of “historicists” strike me as more unnecessarily complex than the best arguments of mythicists. But as we can see (I hope) the primary interest on this blog and to where my own readings and efforts are directed is to understanding the nature of the Biblical books, how they came to be what they are, — where Christianity and its predecessor Judaism came from. I have little interest in being diverted to “prove” what is supposedly “my case for mythicism”. I don’t particularly have one.

      Mythicism has just become something of a default position because it is the simplest explanation — or else (more often) the whole question of Jesus’ historicity is irrelevent — for the evidence that needs to be explained when trying to understand what the Bible is all about. At least for me. Tim is more of a mythicist agnostic so he may not put it as strongly as that with respect to his own posts.

      1. Thanks for taking time to respond.

        Your position on “the nature of Biblical books” is why
        I spend a decent amount of time here, as well as the blogs
        and explicitly academic resources which can be found by
        keyword searches or clicking on links provided by
        those who make comments.

    2. The term “mythicist” is a pejorative label applied by the opponents of what I view as an emerging extension of biblical minimalism from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The only reason the mythicist label continues to have currency is that some proponents seem compelled to offer alternative–sometimes breathless (see, e.g., Atwill and Murdock)– hypotheses for the origins of Christianity , while OT minimalists usually have the good sense to stop at proving that a particular character in the OT was not historical.

      1. In this case, minimalist type models may appear to be a core group of facts
        which are beyond dispute, but even if Jesus was “born of a woman”, baptised,
        preached, was considered a teacher, offended the authorities, was executed,
        and then inspired a Messianic movement, there is still a strong argument that
        all those “facts” are subsumed by the creation of narrative “mythological”
        layers. That process is still going on, but the ante-Nicene era is where the
        “mess” was made; all the muddy (and bloody) “tracks” visible throughout
        the “house” can be traced to ambiguity of origination.

        One way to demonstrate the clarity of the “mythicist position”, is to point out
        the ratio of amplified literary fantasy (myth), to the probability of supposed
        facts. If I assign 3% to a minimalist data set, and 97% to “myth layers”, I seem
        to have a defacto “myth” in regards to NT documents. Even if the minimal facts
        are confirmed by new discoveries, the ratio does not change, and I still have
        a collection of texts which does not support strict standards of historicity.

          1. Thanks.

            Academics who insist that “minimal historical facts” about Jesus
            are important to debunking “mythicism” have failed to see what
            is pretty clear. One way or another, “minimal facts” about the
            whole ante-Nicene era will be drowned out by 300+ years of
            “myth” layering. There is no reason to believe any historical
            timeline – as a trellis for multiple events – if that timeline does
            not have a parallel track of corroborating, independent evidence.

            Some Bible scholars are justified to fear the erosion of their world
            -view, but others can shrug the apparent crisis off and convert
            their discipline to literary/cultural/anthropological studies.

    1. I have emailed Valerie to advise her that there is more detail supporting her article than she may have realized — especially the apparent difference in relative numbers of biblical scholars arguing for mythicism then and now. The title of her post, as I indicate here, too, is another matter but it provoked an interesting reaction that exposed the hollowness of McGrath’s stance, I think.

      Valerie’s article originally appeared in AlterNet under the title “5 Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed”.

  4. One of the specific things that Neil and Tim is to be commended for is the way that they actually read the books that the likes of McGrath, Hurtado, the good Rabbi and Time Lord say that have demolished the arguments of mythicists. The content of these books do not concur with the allegations of these “faith scholars”. Is it a case of reading comprehension, delusion, bias or dishonesty? They never banked on someone *actually* reading these books. It would just get repeated by their echoes on the Internet.

    McGrath is slippery as a eel. Instead of putting forth arguments and evidence in defense of an historicist position, he attempts to use loaded terms. Comparing mythicists to creationists is his tool of trade. They will say that no scholar that they know would give the arguments of mythicists the time of day – So what! What and where is the evidence on which they base this scorn and derision?

    Scientist(biological) will normally point a creationist to the mountain of evidence as to the reason for rejecting their claims. Faith infuses “scholars” and theologians do not operate with the same methods as scientist. They never(?) or hardly deal with the evidence – instead credentials, authority and guild tradition are trotted out in its place.

    1. It is interesting. The mantra is that “those mythicist views were dealt their death blows long ago by Case, Goguel etc.” It is all part of the method of ignoring uncomfortable criticisms. Bauer was for most part ignored or else the responses to criticism of his views were in turn ignored. The reason some views are able to resurface is because they were never demolished but simply shut outside. The demolishing arguments are never brought out. Rather, the hand is waved and we are told to “look at all those critics of mythicism back then” and somehow we believe the current crop should all go away.

      1. McGrath set up a page where people were going to refute mythicist claims.

        Instead of just cutting and pasting from Case, Ehrman, Casey etc, he found that he had to leave it all blank.

        ‘The demolishing arguments are never brought out’….

        1. McGrath used to have a habit of waving his hand and telling readers to look at all his exchanges with me in comments where he had soundly trounced me at every turn. Of course he never actually linked to any particular thread. All he has to do is write lots of words, no matter how idiotic and simply false (recall his “reviews” of Doherty’s book) to be able to claim mythicism has been dealt with.

          It’s like watching those cartoons where a bombastic fool taunts his enemy and shadow-boxes away but runs like hell when the real thing faces him nose to nose.

          You don’t have a link to that wiki page do you?

  5. Alvar Ellegård (died 2008) published that the Jesus of the gospels was based on a figure who lived a century earlier was a Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Goteburg.

    Wow, that’s a pretty radical claim isn’t it ? I mean, did the University of Goteburg even have a Faculty of Arts in 100 B.C. ?

    (hilarity aside and since I’m commenting anyway, I’ve just noticed that I’d misread an “and” in that sentence between “earlier” and “was”, and not only is that not there but the sentence is actually ungrammatical by its absence. If you were going to correct the sentence I’d really like it to be by adding the “and”, although my sense of fairness notices that a “who” before “published” would work just as well and be less ambiguous)

  6. It is the unscrupulous behaviour of NT scholars that lets their side down…not the open minded objective consideration of various interested parties- that includes mythicists.

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