The Casey-McGrath Profiles of Mythicists and Mythicism

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath’s review of Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? has appeared in RBL. Casey’s work is a diatribe against persons who have been associated with the Christ Myth arguments (even though some of them do not argue a mythicist case themselves), and against a selection of what he asserts (often inaccurately) are their arguments. Casey also takes bitter swipes at others with whom he has had academic disagreements (in particular Paul L. Owen) or who hold other positions with which he disapproves (e.g. Emanuel Pfoh, Niels Peter Lemche).

According to McGrath’s review Casey has given a “highly commendable” presentation of the character of mythicists (who “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”) and the absurdity of their arguments (that “do not deserve to be taken seriously”). I set out below what those characteristics are according to Casey/McGrath.

I suppose the litany of sins is meant to turn anyone unfamiliar with mythicist arguments off the very thought of ever reading them and poisoning the very thoughts of the names of their exponents. Of course anyone who does read the works of Doherty, Price, Carrier, Wells, — or even articles here that often only indirectly may support mythicist views even though they are generally presentations of contemporary work by biblical scholars — will make up their own mind about the honesty of McGrath’s and Casey’s claims.

McGrath approves of Casey’s personal attacks.

The Casey-McGrath Profile of mythicists (the persons):

Mythicists and those addressed as such by Casey are “without relevant scholarly expertise”

Mythicists “typically” engage in “name-calling and other kinds of rudeness” when speaking of scholars; they have “insulted Casey” and “this reviewer (McGrath)”. Mythicists “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”. At the same time McGrath does concede that Casey’s own work is itself “acerbic” and “sarcastic” — though Casey’s tone is of course justified.

  • Casey actually cites no case where anyone has insulted him; he does cite the one time I mocked McGrath without mentioning my subsequent post expressing my regret at having done so or any of McGrath’s (and Casey’s) own ongoing abusive and insulting language directed towards me and others and his repeated rejections of my appeals for a return to the courteous way we began our exchanges.
  • I invite readers to review my many posts and comments on this blog (and anywhere else) and assess for themselves just how “typically” I or Doherty or Parvus or Widowfield have engaged in “name-calling and other types of rudeness”.

McGrath refers to all mythicists as “Internet cranks” 

Most “were previously fundamentalists or some other sort of conservative Christian”

They prefer “old ‘authorities’ over against recent research” (e.g. Neil Godfrey’s “fixation on older historians and other figures whose legacy has been critically evaluated in the field of history”)

  • I have even posted on recent works by modern historians who address the same “older historians” I myself addressed and that I will continue to post about in upcoming articles. Interestingly the same points I have made comparing fundamental standards set by older historians with certain postmodernist approaches to historical writing have been made by these contemporary historians (McCullagh, Henige).

“Mythicists’ lack . . . awareness of even very basic points of New Testament scholarship”.

  • This generic charge is exemplified by Casey’s misrepresentation of G. A. Wells’s claim that Paul does not cite the Sermon on the Mount — bizarrely suggesting Wells was unaware that the Sermon as written in the Gospel of Matthew was the evangelist’s own composition.

Mythicists have an “all-or-nothing view . . .  which mirrors their pasts in fundamentalism. Finding that the Gospels are not inerrant, as they once assumed them to be, they now assume that nothing in them is factual.”

  • No supporting quotation or reference is given for this charge — neither by Casey nor McGrath.

“Critical scholarship, ignored by mythicists except for the purpose of quote-mining”

  • Doherty? Carrier? Price?

Mythicists are willing “to ignore even their own purported principles when it is necessary to their stance.”


The Casey-McGrath Profile of mythicism (the arguments)

It is backgrounded in “older scholarship that is now badly out of date”.

“fundamentalist unscholarly ways of thinking continue to characterize mythicist claims and arguments”

Mythicists make “misleading and simply false statements … regarding the dates of our manuscripts.”

  • I don’t know of any mythicist case rejecting the standard dates for the manuscripts

“anachronistic expectations” — e.g. Doherty stating Paul ought to have made mention of relics.

One kind of argument from silence is popular among mythicists: “what the Gospels and Q do not say.”

Mythicists “attempt to rely on hypothetical stratifications of a hypothetical document in arguing that Jesus did not exist (although mythicists still need to discard some evidence that does not suit their stance from even the earliest layers of Q posited by Kloppenborg).”

  • Kloppenborg is “badly out of date”?

Mythicists try to dispose of the evidence that James the brother of the Lord provides for the historicity

  • As in the previous point, notice that mythicists don’t “present arguments”; rather, they are said to “discard” or “dispose” of evidence.

Mythicists work with “fundamentalist-type assumptions”. Example: the “notion that Jesus’s teaching must either be wholly unique or entirely unoriginal and that anything shared not only must be directly borrowed but implies that the teacher does not exist.”

There are no valid parallels pointing to Gospel stories being derived from Old Testament precedents. Rather, mythicists are said to make false claims on the basis of “similarities between words in ways that are nonsensical from a linguistic perspective . . . . Often the parallels that are claimed—such as that a figure was “nailed to a tree” or “had twelve disciples”—turn out not to even be true . . . and often the points of connection are due to the fact that mundane objects feature in myths” and the Gospels.

Mythicism is “pseudoscholarship” that “does not deserve to be taken seriously”.

  • So the works of Murdock and Price and Carrier are all lumped together

Mythicism is “not merely wrong in the ways that scholars are often wrong but rather grossly incompetent, shoddily argued and evidenced, utterly lacking in plausibility, and often seeming to willfully distort the evidence, all while its proponents maliciously malign mainstream scholars.”

Mythicism is pseudoscience comparable to young-earth creationist claims.

Mythicism is “denialism” and “unscholarly, inasmuch as they fail to even implement the appropriate methods of scholarly investigation and argument.”

Surely this is enough

It’s tiresome to respond to each of the above points. Is anyone really interested in what Casey had to say about this subject? There is scarcely an honest or supportable claim in Casey’s entire book. I have posted on it in general terms before. If others read for themselves any of the works of Price, Wells, Doherty (or myself) then I trust them to make up their own minds about the Casey-McGrath profiles of their persons and arguments.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

32 thoughts on “The Casey-McGrath Profiles of Mythicists and Mythicism”

  1. Likely most readers will recognize McGrath and Casey’s language instantly, as vituperatve polemic.

    Some will note the irony too in condemning classic scholarship as “old.” Particularly coming from fans of who assert the accuracy of 2,000-year-old writings.

  2. Yes we should not be so hard on the late Professor Casey who was ill advised to write this risible book when his intellectual powers were fading. But we should be alarmed by the lack of professional standards by McGrath who has been led by the intemperate repulsion he feels for “mythicism”, including agnosticism on the question, to seriously mislead those who would read his blog. He fails to point out, for example, that Casey’s dating of the gospels are not mainstream and are very much earlier than the latest scholarly works have argued for so cogently. Or that his Aramaic hobbyhoss has failed to convince most scholars and indeed was effectively demolished on this very site.

  3. I tend to think there was an historical Jesus. The gospels teach that Jesus’s ethical message was one of loving your enemy, and loving your neighbor as yourself. But in practice, Jesus had a scathing approach to the Pharisees and the money changers, and often had a hurtful approach to his disciples, accusing them of lack of faith. I don’t think the writers of the gospels would have written about Jesus as having his ethical message in conflict with his everyday behavior if he was just a myth. Probably the historical Jesus had lofty ideals, but fell somewhat short of them in practice.

    1. Jesus was so bad, he had to be real? But what if he was a deliberate hint that our religious leaders weren’t to be trusted. And we should move past them.

      1. Jesus’ ethical message was one of Agape, love of enemy and love of neighbor. But in practice, Jesus was portrayed as being sometimes scathing towards his enemies (Pharisees and money changers, etc.), and hurtful toward his friends (e.g. “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?, Matthew 17:17″). There seems to be no reason why the gospel writers would portray Jesus as being obnoxious, especially when that portrayal conflicts with Jesus’ ethical ideals. The reason these stories of “The Obnoxious Jesus” may be in the gospels is because the writers wanted to preserve the memory of the historical Jesus, even if this went against the overall message of Agape.

        1. This is the argument from embarrassment: certain attributes of Jesus were so undeniable that they had to be put on the record despite their negativity. A fair number of New Testament scholars who should understand a few basics about logical argument a lot better use this type of (essentially ad hoc) reasoning.

          To follow the logic through we would expect the evangelists to dwell on the suffering and death of Jesus because as a hypocrite that’s what he deserved. But of course it is very difficult to sustain an interpretation that the authors and their intended audiences thought of Jesus as “obnoxious” in any way at all. There is no evidence for this interpretation. It is therefore ad hoc — and it arises directly out of current questions among scholars and laypersons and the desire to find or speculate upon answers to these questions.

          We do have evidence, however, that the evangelists were familiar with the “Old Testament Scriptures” where God is portrayed as being righteously judgmental and scathing towards sinners even though he commands elsewhere that humans leave judgment and retribution to him alone. We also have evidence that the evangelists used these “OT” writings and incorporated phrases from them, allusions to them, themes from them, into their narratives. It is therefore reasonable to assume — on the basis of external evidence — that the evangelists were portraying Jesus as righteously god-like when he pronounced judgment upon sinners.

          The external evidence (the OT and its influence on the gospels) that leads us to this interpretation is necessary. If we rely entirely upon selected passages that we read in the gospels then we are always arguing in a circle.

              1. No doubt you’re in jest but for the sake of completion of my argument I should add that the gospels themselves make declarations that their lead character and narrative themes are tied to various external prophetic works such as Isaiah and Malachi, and Psalms and Exodus, etc. And since we have those very works we have a watertight case that the gospels are indeed based on Jewish scriptures.

      2. A teacher who upbraids his disciples does not necessarily hate them; quite likely the opposite.

        A host of many more, various and serious problems arise from “ethical” and “wisdom” statements attributed to Jesus, even within the cultural context and hyperbolic idiom of first-century “Judaisms”. What did it mean then, and more importantly what does it matter today, to “hate” your parents but to “love” your enemies?

        The NT does not deliberately set Jesus up as a “bad” person.

        I must admit to some sympathy even with Divinity Professor Graham Stanton when, after dismissing some “wandering cynic” hypotheses, he remarks that the “reconstructed portrait of Jesus” in historical “research” often “bears an uncanny resemblance to the researcher”.

        1. I think maybe Neil is right and what I’m seeing is a literary presentation. 1. Jesus taught, but didn’t practice, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7).” Instead, Jesus saw what he believed to be the sin of the money changers and self-righteously threw over their tables. 2. Jesus taught but didn’t practice “Love Your Enemy (Romans 12:14, Matthew 5:38-42; Luke 6:27-31),” because he repeatedly name-called and insulted the Pharisees: (Matthew 12:34), “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16, 24), “blind fools” (Matthew 23:17, 19, 26) and “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). Numerous times he called them “hypocrites” to their faces (Matthew 15:7;23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). 3. Jesus taught but didn’t practice “Love Thy Neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 6:31),” when he repeatedly degraded and demeaned his disciples for not having enough faith: “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26); “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” (Matthew 16:8); “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17).

          I think Jesus was partially to be understood in the light of the fiery prophets of the Old Testament. I think the character Jesus often conveyed a “holier than thou” attitude, just like the old prophets did. But equally a part of the character of Jesus was a philosophy of loving your enemy and loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus had these two sides to his person. And because of this duality, Jesus had two fates: (1) Jesus’ fiery, “holier than thou” side insulted the Pharisees, money changers, etc., and got Jesus arrested and crucified. It was well known to the gospel writers that a “holier than thou” attitude could land a prophet in a lot of trouble. For example, according to the Synoptic Gospels, Herod, who was tetrarch, or sub-king, of Galilee under the Roman Empire, had imprisoned John the Baptist because he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife (Phasaelis) and unlawfully taking Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I. (2) On the other hand, Jesus’ selfless, sanctity of the “Other” side taught people to love their neighbors and enemies, and got him resurrected. The moral the gospel writers seemed to be presenting with Jesus having this duality is that you can’t change the world by finding fault and chastising people, but rather by loving the sinner you encounter so they can begin to see their change and growth must come from themselves. I can’t change you, but I can be a positive influence to assist you in becoming strong enough to begin to change yourself.

          The gospel of Matthew foreshadows that in that gospel there is going to be something very wrong about Jesus. The Davidic Genealogy or royal bloodline of Jesus given in Matthew has two shocking peculiarities about it. First, Jesus’ reported Davidic bloodline itself, unlike that in Luke, was cursed by the prophet Jeremiah. Second, there are four women included in the genealogy, each having well known scandalous sexual histories in the Old Testament. The women’s presence in the bloodline in itself deserves further thought, since, as Tabor says, even the inclusion of women is not proper to a royal Jewish bloodline.

          1. I suppose it is possible to fit all these alleged actions and utterances into one hierarchical system of values, noting the specific context in each case. The main key might be the overall view that Jesus had of himself as the inaugurater of a new Reign of the Heavens. This would require a book and cannot be done with a few musings here.

            A gospel of compassion, especially for the underdog or the unfortunate, makes some sense, but not a policy of altruism so indiscriminate and universal that it makes no resistance whatever to evil. If this was the main “ethic” of Jesus it is not “moral” (unless we define morality as selfless altruism, as is still so naively done). He went like a lamb to the slaughter, and was forsaken on the cross. “He saved others by selective miracles but could not save himself.” The validation of this “ethic” may be claimed his later survival after death and for the promise of paradise or resurrection for his followers, but then he didn’t actually rise from the dead.

            1. An ethic of “turn the other cheek” was definitely present in The New Testament.

              Love Your Enemies:

              Luke 6:27-29

              27″But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29″Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.…

              Matthew 5:44
              But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

              Luke 6:35
              But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

              Romans 12:14
              Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

              1 Peter 3:9
              Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

          1. One last point. This also speaks against the “oral transmission” theory which is in direct contradiction with the “high context” theory. Oral Transmission theory says that stories about Jesus were passed on word of mouth, his sayings and teachings carefully remembered and reverently passed on. Yet our best example of a Christian living during the period of Oral Transmission and before the existence of the Gospels, does not model this behavior at all. If Oral Transmission Theory were correct, we would expect, even more, that Paul would cite Jesus as the source of teachings. He doesn’t, though, requiring more ad hoc explanation (Paul was unique, Paul co-opted early Christianity, etc). In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should expect Paul to behave more or less like any other Christian of his times. That would require us to expect him to transmit the stories of the earthly teachings of Jesus to illustrate his points. He rarely does and when does, as I said previously, it is more like the exception proves the rule: Paul doesn’t cite an earthly Jesus, but one speaking to him from the right hand of the Father.

          2. It’s also in Luke: Luke 6:27-31 New International Version (NIV)

            Love for Enemies

            27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

            1. This passage takes a ethical instruction further than the Golden Rule which concludes it, and taken as it stands as a social regulation it is more than questionable, even ridiculous or undesirable. For medical reasons I am away from my library at present, but following up an article I wrote on the jokes of Jesus for “The Quarterly Review” I came across a “humorous” explanation of this sort of hyperbolic advice in both its personal and courtroom context.

        1. John, As E Harding pointed out, this quote is not attributed to Jesus. Remember that the mythicist position is that Paul knows of no earthly ministry of Jesus and that after Paul Gospel writers attributed various Christian beliefs and sayings to an earthly Jesus. Your citation of Romans fits this theory perfectly.

          1. Notice also that this is a better explanation for why Paul does not attribute many of the teachings thought to be from Jesus to Jesus. This is strange for a follower of a particular religious teacher to not cite their teacher (“As Jesus taught us when he stood upon the plain…”). So on one side, we have strange behavior that requires explanation (some have argued for “high context,” but all religions operate in high context and it doesn’t stop adherents from citing the Great Teacher–listen to how David Miscavige cites L. Ron Hubbard, for example). On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for Paul to not cite Jesus if he didn’t know of an earthly teaching. Even those cases where Paul does appear to cite Jesus are like the exception proving the rule: Paul cites Jesus as if Jesus directly communicated with him, which is what Paul says: Jesus communicated with him through revelation. The mythicist explanation is by far more coherent than the historicist for this datum that you cited.

            1. Paul quoting Rabbi Jesus – for the best (!) case that can be made, see Petr Pokorny, “Jesus Research…”, in Tom Holmen & Stanley E. Porter (eds), “Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus”, Vol.I, Part One, pp.341-344 (Brill, 2011). You may think it worth every penny of the purchase price (or more probably not).

  4. A huge book could be written on ethical statements found in the NT from many angles. Personally I disagree with the assumption, shared by some non-religious people, that they largely embody the highest and noblest ideals to which humanity should aspire. As a simple rule, to love your neighbor as you love yourself has merit, but to “love” everyone else, including evil-doers, instead of yourself, does not. When back at my desk, I hope to develop this point in response to the argument from Tim Willowfield, following the evil Charleston massacre, which should be punished, not forgiven – though not used as a political opportunity to vilify wholesale people allegedly “privileged” by being born and raised with a pigmentation not “of color”.

  5. Regarding comments above pointing to apparent hypocrisy in the Jesus figure (insulting Pharisees, angry and violent response in Temple….) . . . .

    I have just read Stanley Stower’s chapter “Jesus the Teacher and Stoic Ethics in the Gospel of Matthew” in Stoicism in Early Christianity and have emerged with a very different understanding from anything I had before.

    I will post on it asap. No hypocrisy. Matthew was portraying Jesus as a Stoic sage. I think it would follow that Luke opposed the Stoic ethic of Matthew and this accounts for many of his changes to Matthew (rather than independently following Q).

  6. I am beginning to wonder if the crucifixion pericope was just completely invented. It almost seems to be too much of a coincidence that the crucifixion pericope is modelled on Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, AND Psalm 22 discusses the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Psalm 22:16b).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading