Dispelling the Jesus Mythicist Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 6.57.16 pmJames McGrath directs readers interested in learning more about mythicism to read Dispelling the Jesus Myth, a blogpost by Simon J. Joseph. So I did. Simon’s post introduces nothing new into the discussion. It is the same litany of objections to mythicism one has run across countless times before so I was about to move on and forget about it when it occurred to me that the reason we keep reading these same weary objections may to some extent be because it is too easy to simply ignore them. So for what it’s worth this time I’m taking the time to respond to Simon’s post.

(“For what it’s worth” . . . . One does wonder, especially given the all too commonly observed failure of scholars who protest the loudest against mythicism to bother even to find out what the arguments of mythicists actually are.)

Discrediting and debunking?

Simon Joseph’s first criticism is that

For many, Jesus-Mythicism serves as an effective tool in discrediting the Cornerstone of . . . “Christianity”. Most mythicists are not interested in participating in Jesus Research; they want to debunk it.

From the outset we have here a criticism that is going to shut down any serious thought of genuinely looking into mythicist arguments. No doubt one will find many people among those declaring Jesus never to have existed who want to debunk Christianity. I posted about one such author only a few days ago. I also pointed out that polemics are not what seriously argued mythicism is about.

I have posted here at length on the views of Thomas L. Brodie whose mythicist views have served only to enhance his appreciation of Christianity.

Tom Harpur similarly speaks very positively about Christianity as a direct result, not in spite of, his mythicist view of Jesus Christ.

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy likewise object only to fundamentalist or literal interpretations of the Gospels — a criticism shared by a significant number of non-mythicist liberal Christians such as John Shelby Spong.)

Robert M. Price has also spoken positively of Christianity since coming to his conclusion that Jesus had no historical existence.

A little while ago I presented in detail the views of an earlier mythicist, Paul-Louis Couchoud whose adoration of Christianity led him to write panegyrics to the faith. See, for example, his conclusion to The Creation of Christ.

Herman Detering remains a church pastor, I believe. I don’t believe anyone ever read a single “debunking” word on Christianity in anything published by Alvar Ellegård and G. A. Wells.

And I suspect names like Kurt Noll, Philip Davies and Arthur Droge who are not mythicists but have expressed an interest in seeing mythicist views addressed more seriously are not motivated by any wish to debunk anything. Thomas L. Thompson appears to hold views that I have also come to embrace with respect to the mythicist question. Debunking and discrediting Christianity are nowhere on the radar in any of his publications.

Very likely those who are the most seriously interested in mythicism are primarily interested in the historical question per se and are not likely to risk such a serious enquiry with polemical distractions. There are some exceptions, of course, but such names have certainly not featured often or always positively on this blog.

Yet the myth persists that “most mythicists” or “many” of them are motivated by a desire to debunk. “Most” and “many” are relative terms. I think I have demonstrated from the above that a good many mythicist authors are actually positive towards Christianity. Most mythicist authors, I would suggest (and see the Who’s Who tables to get some rough idea of the relative numbers), avoid any anti-Christian polemic in their publications.

So why do we regularly read this little bit of ad hominem?

Not interested in participating

My suspicion is that those who give prominent notice to the presumed (imputed) motives of mythicists give themselves an excuse for not engaging with their arguments. Bart Ehrman refuses to engage in public debate even to defend his book against mythicism. I had invited Maurice Casey to personally discuss some criticisms of his arguments that I posted on this blog but he preferred to reply through a third party what he thought of my character instead. One of his students, James Crossley, has followed in his train by preferring to respond with patronizing and even abusive tones to my radical criticisms of his work and accused me of undesirable motives. Larry Hurtado, ditto. There’s no need to recall James McGrath or R. Joseph Hoffmann. I recently attempted to engage in a discussion on The Jesus Blog run by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne: for a short while my comment appeared live but was soon removed. I attempted another and asked for an explanation: my comment never appeared and I am still waiting for a reply.

As for not wanting to participate or engage with historical Jesus scholarship Simon Joseph, I think, has the situation exactly backwards. I have outlined my own experiences above. Earl Doherty has certainly engaged with the scholarship in the field and I recall a few years ago John Dominic Crossan being invited to respond to Doherty’s critiques. Silence. And again with others, and again. But not always. On the old Crosstalk discussion forum Doherty’s contributions met with tiresomely regular outright hostility.

In the Biblioblog sphere congratulations routinely were showered on any new blog that made the Top Ten. When Vridar appeared there — silence. Eventually the rules and structure were changed to exclude Vridar altogether. The irony is that for some time a good number of scholars — even James McGrath! — had nothing but positives to express in the posts I was sharing on this blog and in some of the exchanges we had. But when I moved to post sympathetically on mythicism that all ended with a thud. I continue to post mostly on works of scholarship related to the nature of the Bible and to the question of Christian origins that only indirectly relate to some perspectives of mythicism. But no amount of virtue will cover my sin.

So I think it is fair to say that the side who refuses to participate in engagement with the alternative view is not that of the mythicists.

Exposing the weaknesses

Simon Joseph then writes:

Yet despite the efforts of biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice CaseyJames McGrath, and others to expose the methodological weaknesses of the Mythicist position, there seems to be no end in sight to the phenomenon.

What SJ fails to grasp with this comment is that mythicists and others who are Jesus agnostics have indeed responded very fully and methodically to Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and James McGrath. The problem is that mythicists have found the arguments of these scholars seriously flawed: many of them, possibly even most, of their arguments are actually straw-man substitutes for the mythicist case.

I wonder if SJ has read, say, Maurice Casey’s critique and then compared the actual writings of those Casey claims to be even “quoting”. I doubt it. I suspect SJ is just assuming the scholarly arguments must have hit their targets. I have posted here various responses to Bart Ehrman’s criticism. I doubt that SJ has ever looked at any of those responses. It would appear that many anti-mythicists simply assume that the likes of Bart Ehrman would have everything under control and there is no need for anyone else to explore the claims, let alone the validity of criticism by one like Ehrman.

Problematic arguments


The problem is that Mythicists rely on problematic arguments that have no credibility. These arguments might appeal to the general reader, but they simply do not hold up under the scrutiny of careful critical analysis. For example, there is no particularly compelling reason to think that we should have significantly more evidence about Jesus preserved from antiquity, but this is a cornerstone argument for Mythicists. 

Characteristically of most anti-mythicist arguments this one is expressed in generalities. SJ does not cite any mythicist who makes this “cornerstone argument” or what, precisely, it entails. It is misleading to suggest that mythicists are wanting “more” evidence. The quantity is only one facet of the much larger question. It is the nature of what we do have that is most critical. But such nuance does not lend itself to criticism by sweeping generalization.

So we can neither assume nor assert  that we should have more evidence from this remote period in time.

I am not sure what mythicist arguments SJ has read but it is telling that he does not cite any mythicist who argues that we can “assume” or “assert” the above. Again, we are reading nothing but a sweeping generalization that in fact misrepresents (and is probably ignorant of) mythicist arguments. If so, we may turn the tables and ask what the motivation might be.

Then the ad hoc knowledge-gaps

Christianity was an outlawed and persecuted sect for almost three hundred years.

It was? Such mis-statement of fact leave some of us despairing at the general lack of awareness of the facts of history and failure to grasp what the question really involves.

None of the positive evidence survives

What makes the Mythicist position most untenable is that none of the positive evidence for Jesus’ existence ever seems to survive the acid test of their deconstruction. This betrays an agenda that prevents them from being taken seriously.

Again, no names, no instances, are cited. The bottom line here, it may not be unfair to say, is that SJ doesn’t like mythicists having methods or using rational enquiry to come to different conclusions. It is here where discussion should be centred. But it does appear SJ is just sweeping aside any possibility. The subtext of his criticism is that mythicists are motivated to reject anything in favour of Christianity. That’s all one needs to know.

Doubting Jesus but not Caesar

But Mythicists take skepticism to unreasonable lengths and seem to be so engaged in personal, ideological, and (anti-) theological polemics with institutional religion and/or the Judeo-Christian God that it often seems like the historicity of “Jesus” is being used as a foil for something else – a means of undermining and subverting the entire superstructure of the Christian faith. . . .  Mythicists doubt the historicity of Jesus is because extraordinary (read: supernatural) claims have been made about him. Mythicists do not doubt the historical existence of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great and there is no good reason to doubt the historical existence of Jesus either.

By now it is evident that SJ has read no more serious mythicist arguments than most other critics. He has certainly not read the works of mythicists who make it very clear that they are not addressing the Jesus who performed miracles. They are indeed addressing the Jesus of historical Jesus scholarship.

As for the comparison with Caesar and Alexander SJ has read none of the many, very many, rejoinders that demonstrate, over and over, that such a riposte fails to take notice of what the real differences in evidence for different historical persons. Nor has he taken any notice of the mythicist arguments themselves and the way they do engage with the historical Jesus scholarship. He has definitely not read any of my own posts addressing the fundamental question of how we know anyone in ancient times existed — even certain supposed nonentities like a particular slave or an obscure teacher who never left us anything in writing at all.

Not rocket science

The Quest for the Historical Jesus isn’t rocket science, but it is based on the critical evaluation of historical sources. Historical-critical scholarship is an exercise in analytical skepticism: rendering critical judgments on the probabilities of past events using the tools of evidence, arguments, logic, and peer-review.

True. Now let us come and reason together.

Why the fear? Why the need to hide behind sweeping generalizations that touch no-one except their real audience, those one wants to believe the worst about mythicism? Why the imputation of motives? Why the assumptions that others have taken care of the question long ago?

When it comes to Jesus, it is the cumulative weight of the evidence that convinces. This convergence of evidence – Josephus’ references to Jesus, the references in Paul’s letters, the embarrassing political and theological fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, the literary and theological trajectories of the Gospels, and the telling fact that the Mythicist position is never taken by any of the Jesus movement’s many enemies, whether Jewish, pagan, Roman, or Gnostic, throughout late antiquity – is compelling.

This demonstrates SJ’s failure to appreciate the depth and extent of scholarship that has been invested in each of these questions from established New Testament scholars. SJ, and many like him, may indeed be surprised to learn how much more extensive some mythicists are about the methods and nuances involved in the scholarly discussions of these different points. It is not hyper-scepticism that is the wrecker. It is mythicist determination to not allow unfounded assumptions to make the final decision that is the difference.

The trajectories in fact (and the literature supports this) work in favour of mythicism, not against it. The so-called embarrassment of the crucifixion is no embarrassment at all once one grasps more completely the social, cultural, literary and religious context of the narrative. (Not to overlook some simple facts about human nature.)

SJ writes like one who believes in his Christianity as an article of faith. Not all historical Jesus scholars are Christians. But most have invested a career in the research. Anti-mythicists have to be honest if they are going to impute motives to their opponents. They have to admit that their side, too, has some powerful motives to see things the way they have always been.


It is evident that criticisms like SJ’s are ill-informed. Why do the same ill-informed arguments continue to circulate? One does sense some sort of fear or concern about the growing popularity of mythicism. Clichés that bypass the actual questions are not likely to satisfy anyone but the converted — and the uncurious.


Response above is to Simon J. Joseph’s post: Dispelling the Jesus Myth



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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Dispelling the Jesus Mythicist Myth”

  1. You take it for granted that there is a genuine theoretical opposition between ‘mythicists’ (Jesus didn’t exist) and non-‘mythicists’ (Jesus existed) – that this is a valid front in a scholarly battle. But the differences the people who don’t doubt Jesus existed are far greater than the differences of many of them from typical mythicists. (I am thinking only of genuine scholars on these topics). For most ‘non-mythicist’ scholars, for example, the actual teaching and actions of Jesus are basically unknowable, or if they a few things are knowable, they basically have accidental and decorative effects on ‘post resurrection’ Jesus adherence, still more on e.g. 2nd century Christianity.

    So-called ‘historical Jesus’ scholarship is widely thought not to be a fruitful avenue of research among people interested in the origins of Christianity, but “Jesus” mythicism is in fact a peculiar version of ‘historical Jesus’ scholarship. Standard explanations use the existence of Jesus, but only (for example) to employ the psychology of failed messianic expectations in accounting for the later phenomena. This requires the existence of the messianic figure, but requires almost no actual facts about the person. When later a gospel is needed, blanks are filled in, maybe some actual historical material – it doesn’t actual matter for any of the really interesting questions. The incidents of the life of Sabbatai or Schneerson are not too important for people who continue to adhere after the apostasy, in the one case, and death (occultation?!), in the other. Wild claims will immediately proliferate; a ‘second coming’ will be posited; a sort of divinization may make its appearance, etc. — since the messianic claims are certainly true. Indeed, the question whether the messianic character ‘really existed’ in ‘flesh and blood’ will be more real for the believers than for the unbelievers.

    By contrast, the unbeliever and the observing scholar really does need the existing human in order to explain the triggering of these symptoms, though he or she needs basically no facts about him at all, apart from a messianizing retinue. If we reject the existence of Jesus, we are deprived of the psychology of failed messianism — it is the same with many, many accounts, I am just using ‘failed messianism’ as an illustration.

  2. One wonders if Candida Moss will write a scathing critique of this article’s blanket assumption that Christians were persecuted, ignoring entirely her recent book on this topic.

    The “facts” that historicists use to prop up the HJ are discredited by the very historicist scholars who mock the mythicist position.

  3. “For many, Jesus-Mythicism serves as an effective tool in discrediting the Cornerstone of . . . “Christianity”.”

    What’s funny is that this opening salvo of tribalism also demonstrates the tribe he belongs to: the tribe that uses the historical Jesus to validate claims of Christians; whether they be liberal or even conservative Christians. I’m pretty sure we can list myriads of books/authors of NT scholarship who heap some manner of praise upon Jesus that implicitly validates Jesus’ role in the average Christian’s worship while writing about the latest scholarship in historical Jesus studies.

    Yes, one of the best ways to poison dialog or to subconsciously bias yourself is tribalism. Ingroup bias is the reason we have racism, sexism, and many other blights in human existence. It’s no wonder that it’s corrupted the historicism/mythicism debate too.

  4. “So we can neither assume nor assert that we should have more evidence from this remote period in time.”

    And yet there are contemporary historians who assert that this period and place were one of the better attested venues in history.

    After all, we do know of more than ten rabble-rousers named Jesus who were fairly contemporaneous to the Anointed Savior. We know of street vendors, magicians, etc. It would be nice to have a comprehensive list of the smallest blips on the radar, so that the absence of the Goodyear blimp-sized protagonist may be put into proper perspective so that we may finally put to rest that rather outrageous bit of revisionism by Joseph.

  5. So McGrath wants people to learn more about mythicism….

    Wasn’t he supposedly writing a compendium of mythicist claims and arguments for his readers to consult?

    He dropped that project so quickly it was embarrassing. Almost as though he didn’t have a clue about any mythicist arguments, so couldn’t write about them.

    And now he wants people to learn about mythicists by pointing them to a blog page which doesn’t mention the name of one single mythicist, or the name of one mythicist book or article.


    The letters of Paul – written between 48 and 60 C.E., with their multiple references to Jesus’ human birth (“born of a woman”), Jewish ancestry, teachings, crucifixion, family, friends, and disciples


    Where does Paul refer to Jesus’s teachings? Or his ‘friends’? Or his ‘disciples’?

    ‘… refer to a very real historical figure in very real time and space. ‘

    Where does Paul put the crucifixion ‘in very real time’?

      1. It’s astonishing that a PhD could get so many things wrong in such a short post.

        Oh, who am I kidding? I’m not astonished at all — just continually disappointed.

  7. “The Quest for the Historical Jesus isn’t rocket science, but it is based on the critical evaluation of historical sources.”

    This is where most people fail. The “Historic” Jesus, for the most part, is studied in the same places, by the same people, that the “Jesus of Faith” is studied: seminary schools, Bible colleges, Christian universities. Their supposedly critical evaluation (which isn’t very critical) is only allowed to go so far, and “the historical sources” are mainly theologically-motivated texts. Theologians are not historians. They may have an interest in ancient history, but the primary motivation is to protect and preserve Christian theology. If Joseph believes this is disinterested scholarship, he is deluding himself.

  8. I had never doubted the existence of JC until I observed a debate between a mythicist and an historical Jesus advocate. The lack of engagement of the HJer with the argument, the attack on the mythicist and the Argument from Authority all alerted my BS sensor. The dishonest argument that mythicists have an agenda of discrediting Christianity has every appearance of projection.

  9. “Why do the same ill-informed arguments continue to circulate? One does sense some sort of fear or concern about the growing popularity of mythicism. Clichés that bypass the actual questions are not likely to satisfy anyone but the converted — and the uncurious.”

    By analogy, I think William Dever’s ad hominem attacks against minimalism provides the answer to your question: to most believers, the foundation of their faith is the Bible’s historicity. According to Dever, merely labeling the Bible as something other than history is to engage in “nihilism,” even if the purpose of relabeling the Bible’s genre is to allow the search for actual history to begin. Dever is not so much defending the faith as he is defending the faithful from slipping into despair when they realize that if the Bible is not history, their faith is a lie. Thomas Brodie demonstrates that believers can accept that their faith remains true even if Jesus was a myth.

    If anything Dever and the anti-mythicists are demonstrating a lack of faith in their fellow believers, which seems to lead one to the conclusion that the real purpose is to secure their (Dever and the anti-mythists) authority over the rank and file believers. An expert in a history that never happened is an expert in nothing.

  10. Since when is debunking not part of participation? If there is bunk, what else are you supposed to do with it?

    It’s so funny how biblical scholars say how nice you are supposed to treat them, while most academic disciplines use phrases such as “contact (or even blood) sport”, “jousting”, and the like.

  11. Pingback: Joseph Returns to Judea | When is Jesus Coming Back?

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