Not wanting on a Sunday to spend too much time at one sitting responding to James McGrath’s gaffes I will respond in small segments to his latest “review” of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus on the Bible and Interpretation site. Once I’ve done enough of these I may combine them into a single response and forward to Bible and Interpretation to see if they will post them there.
This post addresses the first “substantive” criticism in McGrath’s latest review:
His [Carrier’s] treatment of myth, and how to determine whether a work is largely or entirely myth, is less satisfactory. Carrier writes,
Characteristics of myth are
(1) strong and meaningful emulation of prior myths (or even of real events);
(2) the presence of historical improbabilities (which are not limited to ‘miracles’ but can include natural events that are very improbable, like amazing coincidences or unrealistic behavior); and
(3) the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements (because a myth can incorporate real people and places, but the central character or event will still be fictional).
No one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical. But the presence of all three is conclusive. And the presence of one or two can also be sufficient, when sufficiently telling.
Ignoring Carrier’s point that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical but the presence of all three is conclusive” McGrath proceeds to “protest” that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical”. Not only that, but he completely fails to grasp the difference between “emulation” and “similarity“.
Since similarity between real events and other real events is not at all unlikely, and on the contrary well documented, the first alleged characteristic of myth simply doesn’t work.
Virgil creates Aeneas to emulate the characters of Odysseus and Achilles in Homer’s epics. That is, Virgil creates Aeneas to rival and surpass the Homeric heroes in meaningful ways to draw attention to those comparisons and the superiority of Aeneas. One can find similarities between Virgil’s Aeneid and the Epic of Gilgamesh but that’s all. One sees only similarities and not meaningful emulation. It is hardly controversial to propose that Matthew’s Jesus emulates Moses at certain points of the narrative (e.g. Allison 1993).
McGrath pleads some uncertainty as to the precise meaning of “external corroboration” in point 3 but had he noticed the footnote at the end of Carrier’s paragraph that he quotes (that he did fail to notice it is evident from his failure to include it in his quotation) he would have been left in no doubt. In the earlier chapters of OHJ especially Carrier reminds readers that the fundamentals of historical argument and method of reasoning underlying our acceptance of what constitutes supporting evidence for historical hypotheses were thoroughly covered in Proving History.
The third point is equally problematic, not only because it is unclear what “external corroboration” entails (external to one literary work and confirmed in another, or external to the entire tradition in question?),
Having expressed confusion over the meaning of “external corroboration” McGrath nevertheless proceeds to argue as if he knows exactly what it means and the consequences of accepting it as a criterion:
but also because a great many figures in the Judaism of this time, such as John the Baptist and Hillel, might be deemed unhistorical by this criterion.
This statement is simply wrong for several reasons:
- It is fallacious to reject a method because one fears its application may call into question long-held assumptions;
- Lack of external corroboration does not entail that any particular event or person is unhistorical (as Carrier himself explains in Proving History);
- In this case the respective evidence for John the Baptist and Hillel is not comparable either in terms of proximity to the person or the nature of the testifying documents;
- Having said he does not know what Carrier means by “external corroboration” McGrath fails to explain what he means by it in this assertion that is founded upon the term.
On Carrier’s second characteristic of myth McGrath protests:
The second also fails to do justice to the presence of the allegedly miraculous in a range of sources about verifiably historical people and events.
Again McGrath here overlooks not only Carriers elaboration of this point in Proving History and referenced here in a footnote, but also Carrier’s follow on explanatory sentence:
No one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical.
McGrath illustrates his objections to Carrier’s characteristics of myth by comparing 1 and 2 Maccabees, only once again to demonstrate Carrier’s point that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical but the presence of all three is conclusive” and confusing once again the meaning of “emulation” with “similarity” and even appearing to confuse “no indication of an author or sources” with “external corroboration”.
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