Tom Dykstra writes “a cautionary tale” concerning the unpleasant rift between mythicists (those who dispute the historicity of Jesus) and historicists (those who defend the historicity of Jesus). His primary exemplars are “historicist” Bart Ehrman and “mythicist” Thomas Brodie, Ehrman and Brodie on Whether Jesus Existed: A Cautionary Tale about the State of Biblical Scholarship.
His first warning is against the overconfidence of the historicists: mythicists do raise some serious questions that historicists ought to take more seriously;
Dykstra offers an alternative approach to the question in an attempt to break out from the “he-did-exist” versus the “no-he-didn’t” polarity that he suggests is buttressed by a an over abundance of confidence that too often surfaces on both sides.
Finally Dykstra excoriates the hostile tone and outright insults fired from both trenches. Yes and no; here I find myself unable to fully agree with Dykstra’s moral of the story.
Dykstra reminds readers of the struggles of past scholars for their critical works questioning the historicity of other biblical characters and events (e.g. Thomas Thompson was to be rejected by the academy for his thesis disputing the authenticity of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob though today his thesis is mainstream).
The message that comes through is that scholars need to be more willing to seriously consider the arguments that challenge the status quo. This is especially so given that scholars who take the historical existence of Jesus for granted at the same time acknowledge that many claims made in the same evidence for Jesus simply cannot be trusted. The most obvious examples are the infancy narratives and portrayal of Pilate as a righteous but weak-willed man.
Dykstra further points to scholars as diverse as Ben Witherington and John Dominic Crossan observing that both the authors of the gospels and scholars of the gospels have been reconstructing the Jesus who personifies their own theological views — hence modern readers are really looking at theology, not history.
Dykstra outlines the key points of Ehrman’s arguments for the historicity of Jesus and points out in each case how Brodie’s challenge to each one leaves the question far from settled.
But at least as important as the arguments themselves, Dykstra points out at some length, are the problematic attitudes of the scholars that set up a barrier against an open discussion.
A prominent feature of Ehrman’s text is repeated expressions of disdain for “mythicists” . . . along with assertions that no reputable New Testament scholar is a mythicist. In a blog post about the book he expresses clearly the confident and dismissive attitude that also pervades the book.
The mythicist Brodie presents a stark comparison:
Like Ehrman, Brodie expresses absolute confidence in the correctness of his conclusion. But he maintains a good-natured sense of humor and a courteous and considerate attitude toward those on the opposing side.
As for the different perspectives, the article takes us through Ehrman’s “pro-historicity” points and pits against them Brodie’s undermining responses one by one.
Thus where Ehrman sees a host of independent witnesses to Jesus Brodie sees a host of variations of a single source. Where Ehrman sees a narrative that no Jew would fabricate (a messiah who is crucified) Brodie finds a narrative that “makes perfect sense as a fresh synthesis of Old Testament texts that ‘deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope.'”
In these ways Brodie either neutralizes or at least casts doubt on all of Ehrman’s evidence and arguments.
So far so good. It is at the next stage of Dykstra’s article that I find myself taking an ever so slightly different tack — or maybe not. Continue reading “Tom Dykstra on Mythicism: Erhman, Brodie and Scholarly Conduct”