Once more: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Part two of a scholar’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus has appeared on the Bible and Interpretation site and once again the reviewer has deftly avoided any mention of Richard Carrier’s argument. More positively, however, he has managed to insinuate the possibility that Carrier is “deliberately misleading” (character smear is de rigueur for some anti-mythicists) and incompetently demonstrated his own ignorance of the nature and origin of twenty-two elements commonly listed in the “Rank-Raglan” hero archetypes. But he is a renowned “credible scholar” and is called upon to deliver papers against mythicism at conferences, so no doubt among his peers will be those who read exactly what they want to read in his review.

Here is the response I posted at Bible and Interpretation

While Professor McGrath raises a number of questions about the usefulness of the Rank-Raglan list of hero archetypes he fails to address Richard Carrier’s specific argument and use of the list. 

Firstly, although McGrath refers three times to the list being used as a tool for “determining the historicity” of Jesus, Carrier in fact uses the list only to establish a prior likelihood of probability that Jesus would score as highly as he does if he were historical. This is set out (pp. 214-234) in the beginning of Carrier’s book where he sets out “background information” and again in his assessment of prior probability (pp. 235-53) before embarking on the main section of his book (pp. 254-618) where he undertakes his assessment of arguments for and against Jesus’ historicity. 

Secondly, contrary to an impression a reader may take from the above review, Carrier explains that he is prepared to concede that one in three names that appear to score highly on the Rank-Raglan scale might indeed by historical (pp. 241-244). So simply finding several historical names to sit alongside the mythical ones (Carrier even allows one in three historical names) is beside the point and fails to address Carrier’s specific argument. Carrier repeatedly points out that he is attempting to argue a fortiori in favour of Jesus being historical and to this end his arguments is simply that it is comparatively rare for historical persons to score highly on the list (p. 243). 

Thirdly, McGrath questions the relevance of later developments of mythical details but Carrier does in fact rely upon the details of Jesus found only in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (pp. 232, 239).

As for the function and origin of the Rank-Raglan list itself, while McGrath discusses the Freudian associations of Otto Rank’s list he overlooks the fact that Lord Raglan’s list (the one Carrier uses) is quite different in that it has no Freudian associations at all (See Part II of Lord Raglan’s The Hero). It is, moreover, simply a classification of those types of myths that were thought to have originated as from religious rituals. The debates to which McGrath refers in his review do not question the validity or reality of the elements themselves but are instead focussed on the disagreements over literary versus other cultural approaches in anthropological studies. Alan Dundes, whom McGrath cites, in fact himself uses the same Raglan list to score Jesus very highly indeed. (See Alan Dundes, “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” in Otto Rank et al. “In Quest of the Hero,” Princeton University Press, (1990), Page 179 to 223) (Segal, also quoted by McGrath, similarly scores Jesus highly.) So McGrath’s assertion that his own belief that Jesus should not be taken as a more objective conclusion than Carrier’s score.

McGrath is correct when he says that the conformity to a list does not itself determine the historicity or otherwise of a character. Lord Raglan explained why this is the case: in the case of historical persons one can peel away the mythical layers and still identify nonmythical historical substance. Carrier does not dispute this and in fact builds this fact into his assessment of prior probability.

McGrath has unfortunately missed an opportunity to address Carrier’s argument concerning the Rank-Raglan case — that what the list demonstrates is that a person who ranks highly finds him/herself in the company of more mythical persons than historical ones. This is a prior probability only, and not used by Carrier to “determine” the question of the historicity of Jesus.

I also posted the above on McGrath’s blog but the good professor has recently deleted some of my comments in which I attempted to point out certain errors of fact and logic in his posts and even those where I attempted to defend myself against some of his more direct criticisms of me, so I do not know how long he will allow my comment to remain there.


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Once more: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus”

  1. I used to think Mcgrath was wrong but at least sincere and above board – now I find increasingly difficult to give him the benefit of a doubt… Deleting your comments is a very cowardly and desperate move. But if you want to post them here, maybe they will do some good after all!

    1. I have very often bent over backwards to give McGrath the benefit of the doubt. I have rarely doubted his sincerity. I think it was Tim’s post on Torture where he drummed home this message

      Don’t accuse them of not listening or not understanding what you’re saying. They can hear you. Their minds just don’t work the way yours does

      that the penny finally dropped. Chomsky had said the same years earlier — it’s pointless arguing with those in power. They know what they are doing and don’t need you to tell them. I saw the same in an interview with a general leading an campaign to destroy a certain group: when confronted with the opposing argument and all its reason he simply responded that such was the talk of the enemy. Reason was not an option.

      The closest I came to an honest discussion with McGrath (I thought) was in a series of comments here analysing what is meant by evidence and how we know about the past. It seemed to being going well until McGrath could see the logic of the discussion was going against him. His response revealed an intent that could well be interpreted as contrary to honest intellectual inquiry.

      But he has proven time and again that he is not even interested in understanding the mythicist view. He has posted (for the third time, I think) just now another argument that the gospels are not “anonymous” — as if his point has anything to do with the actual claims of mythicists (in this case Lataster’s recent article). He simply sidesteps the arguments that are presented and rephrases them as what they “seem” to be saying instead. (He has proven unable to explain Doherty’s arguments, my own points — and now he is failing to explain even Carrier’s actual arguments in his B and I reviews.)

      The comments of mine that he has spammed recently are those in which I have cited specific evidence that contradicts his sweeping generalizations attacking mythicism and those that have attempted to point out his own misunderstanding of an argument or claim he is refuting. I suppose such comments must, over time, make it clear to others that agenda is driving his posts on mythicism. I am still surprised he has taken to removing my comments because (1) I thought he said he was ignoring me and (2) the overwhelming majority of his readers seem to want to back him to the hilt and attack me for making him look “incompetent” (as one of them admitted).

      Jim West and Larry Hurtado and James Crossley are no different, in my experience. They blatantly lie about what I have written and deny me any right of reply to defend myself. Maurice Casey and Bart Ehrman likewise are very slapdash with the truth.

      And they all appeal to authority as the bottom line.

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