Trivial Fallacies of a Hostile Anti-Mythicist

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by Neil Godfrey

Madsen Pirie, author of How to Win Every Argument
Madsen Pirie, author of How to Win Every Argument

The problem with trivial objections is that they leave the central thesis largely untouched. It is fallacious to oppose a contention on the basis of minor and incidental aspects, rather than giving an answer to the main claim which it makes. . . .The fallacy is akin to that of the straw man. Instead of facing the main opponent, in this case it is only a few aspects of it which are confronted. The trivial objections are possibly valid, the point is that they are also trivial, and not adequate to the work of demolishing the case which is presented. The fallacy is committed because they are not up to the task to which they are assigned, not because they are erroneous. . . . .

But there is hope. Despite the above shortcomings of trivial objections they nonetheless can be used to good effect:

If you dwell on your objections, listing them and showing how each one is valid, your audience will be impressed more by their weight of numbers than by their lack of substance. (Pirie 2006 pp. 163-164 — bolded emphasis is my own)

And so it is that probably the best-known anti-mythicist on the web has mastered the tactic of trivial objections to deflect attention from the substance of mythicist arguments.

Responding to an article that was published in the Cambridge online journal published for the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Think, Professor McGrath demonstrates with aplomb the masterful application of the art of the trivial objection.

To fully appreciate McGrath’s finesse we need to identify the core argument of the article being addressed. The author, Raphael Lataster, makes the central point clear in his conclusion:

The approach taken by the mainstream historicists is riddled with unjustified and no longer tenable presuppositions, employs the use of illogical methods such as the overuse of non-existing sources, and surprisingly involves attacks on critics’ personal beliefs and qualifications. By contrast, the work of ahistoricists like Carrier and myself is published in the peer-reviewed literature, and is measured and impersonal. Given the state of the available sources, it is entirely reasonable to be undecided over the issue of Jesus’ historical existence.

Lataster sums up his discussion of Bart Ehrman’s arguments for the “certainty” that Jesus existed (set out with my own formatting):

He claims that he has demonstrated, at the very least, that the Historical Jesus certainly existed. But his case relied on

  • assumptions that the Gospels are basically reliable and don’t elaborate on or adapt the earlier Christian sources,
  • ill-considered musings about what Jews of the time would and would not have believed,
  • and sources that don’t exist and can’t be analysed.

Lataster next addresses Maurice Casey’s attempt to prove that Jesus existed but there is very little of substance in Casey’s scurrilous rag (written with the close assistance of Stephanie Fisher largely as a vengeful pay-pack against me and some others who had offended her and criticized the works of her friends).Casey’s book generally consists of rambling irrelevancies, inexplicable errors and frequent resorts to vulgarities, slander and blatant falsehoods. Lataster includes it for the sole reason that it is the only other attempt by a scholar reputed to have addressed mythicism today. (Note that mainstream scholars like Jim West, James Crossley and James McGrath who were friends of Casey and/or hostile to mythicism have praised Casey’s book as an excellently researched contribution!)

Lataster next discusses the main arguments of two peer-reviewed scholars (himself and Richard Carrier) arguing for the Christ mythicist theory — or at least for agnosticism on the question.

His own arguments consist of:

  • the inadequacy of the criteria of authenticity to locate a historical substrata beneath the gospels;
  • Paul’s inability to provide us with confirmation of Jesus given that he claims to have relied upon revelation and scriptures for his knowledge of Jesus;
  • the evidence for Paul’s (and the earliest Christian) belief that Jesus was an entirely celestial figure.

Finally Lataster addresses Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. He points out that Carrier”crunches the probability numbers” so as to favour the historicist case and still concludes that the odds of Jesus having existed are low. Most significantly, Lataster alerts readers to the fact that he is the only scholar to have published a review of Carrier’s book in a peer-reviewed journal. The irony remains that while Carrier and Lataster are publishing the thesis through peer-review critics like McGrath are avoiding those scholarly channels and relying upon their personal blog diatribes. (Some have published in Bible and Interpretation but this is an online trade journal, not really a rigid peer review publication. Further, the while the Society of Biblical Literature rejected an article by Lataster the same article was picked up and approved by peer-review among mainstream — non-biblical — historians!)

Such is the meat of Raphael Lataster’s article.

Now get ready for James McGrath’s objections:

The inability of Lataster to realize just how poor his writing style is . . .is truly remarkable. . . .   an article the wording of which resembles a mediocre undergraduate essay

Next objection:

he is contradicting himself within the space of a few sentences

Ouch, now how did the editors of Think let such an article through in the first place? But read on and we find that McG even concedes Lataster is explaining what Bart Ehrman himself claims to be doing: that he will prove Jesus existed (and he does conclude with a most emphatic nothing-less-than-100%-probability assertion that Jesus certainly did exist!) although “technically” nothing can really be proved by historical methods. It’s all about probability. But of course McG must fault the reviewer for pointing out (and even praising, in fact) Ehrman’s understanding of the limitations of historical method!

Continuing with his incisive rebuttal of the central planks of Latater’s article McG writes:

One of the funniest moments in Lataster’s piece is when he offers himself as one of the four examples in his survey of scholars, and adopts a declamatory, almost self-revelatory, tone . . . .And he ends with capitalization that must have been learned from online pseudo-debates, because it isn’t something one encounters in academic writing . . . .

The capitalisation was in fact a device to draw attention to the title of Lataster’s book. But McGrath has missed that little ironical touch.

Next, McGrath slices the heart out of Lataster’s argument with

Mythicism isn’t a taboo idea among scholars. It is just one that was found unconvincing long ago,

Of course what happened long ago was that mainstream scholars like McGrath simply ignored it. Unfortunately the internet is here this time and it’s not so easy to ignore. Notice McG’s assurance to his readers that they don’t have to read anything mythicists write; academics have all heard it long ago and rejected it; therefore you are wasting your time and being unreasonably cynical if you don’t accept today’s theologians who tell you all the arguments are rubbish.

And I love this bit:

But if you mistake online mythicism’s behavior for appropriate scholarly decorum, if you mistake its launching of insults at scholars for arguments, and its tactics for logical arguments, then you had better hope that no one on the committee that reviews your tenure dossier bothers to actually read what you’ve written. 

McGrath has described my own “behaviour” as “despicable”. He waves his hand at previous exchanges to tell readers to go and see just what he means. I think I’ll collate all of our exchanges one day so people can do that very checking with ease. It is clearly McGrath who is the one who has persistently resorted to “tactics” and “insults” when challenged for his methodological, logical and factual blunders as well as his falsehoods about books he claims to have read.

Lataster takes Ehrman to task for basing his entire case for historicity on hypothetical sources behind the gospels. In response McG

Deducing the possibility or likelihood of earlier sources based on evidence from the sources we have is not the same as merely imagining sources for which we have no evidence whatsoever.

Notice it? Deducing a possibility is equated with deducing a likelihood and by implication we enter the realm of probability for Ehrman’s final conclusion:

“The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. That is what this book will set out to demonstrate.”

Excerpt From: Bart D. Ehrman. “Did Jesus Exist? – The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.” iBooks.

Notice also McGrath’s poor grasp of logic and grasp of methodology when he equates “deductions based on evidence” with “evidence” itself. I once discussed this confusion with McGrath and for a time he seemed to be grasping the fundamental difference between data, information and evidence. (Data is raw fact, stuff; information is what we have when we give meaning to that stuff, so letters on a page can carry information for us; evidence is what we get when we apply that information to certain questions. But it seems McG has forgotten our past discussions and carries on with his same confusion of terminology and essentially incoherent assertions.)

McGrath more significantly has avoided Lataster’s criticism of Ehrman’s argument and slipped in his (McG’s) own version of a more palatable argument. We here are veering away from trivial objections and entering something else: a dishonest review by McGrath.

Lataster takes Ehrman to task for going much farther than merely suggesting “possibility” or even “likelihood”. McGrath attempts to get around this by focusing on Lataster’s use of the word “imaginary” sources instead of the more positive sounding term “hypothetical” sources. McGrath is trying to imply that Lataster is deliberately and dishonestly avoiding Ehrman’s argument justifying why he believes these hypothetical sources existed. After all, McG has said that mythicists don’t have arguments; they only have “tactics”.

McG avoids Lataster’s central point that Ehrman’s case for historicity is built soundly upon the firm belief in these hypothetical sources. There is no mere “possibility” or lukewarm “likelihood” about it. Possibility becomes probability becomes certainty by consensus: that’s Lataster’s point that McG masterfully avoids. I quote Bart Ehrman here to drive the point home:

“THE EVIDENCE I OFFER in this chapter is not all there is. It is simply one part of the evidence. But it is easy to see why even on its own it has proved to be so convincing to almost every scholar who ever thought about the issue. We are not dealing with just one Gospel that reports what Jesus said and did from sometime near the end of the first century. We have a number of surviving Gospels—I named seven—that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions. These all attest to the existence of Jesus. Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data—for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Even more important, these independent witnesses are based on a relatively large number of written predecessors, Gospels that no longer survive but that almost certainly once existed. Some of these earlier written texts have been shown beyond reasonable doubt to date back at least to the 50s of the Common Era. They derive from locations around the Mediterranean and again are independent of one another. If historians prefer lots of witnesses that corroborate one another’s claims without showing evidence of collaboration, we have that in relative abundance in the written sources that attest to the existence of the historical Jesus.”

“But most significant of all, each of these numerous Gospel texts is based on our Gospel texts is based on oral traditions that had been in circulation for years among communities of Christians in different parts of the world, all of them attesting to the existence of Jesus. And some of these traditions must have originated in Aramaic-speaking communities of Palestine, probably in the 30s CE, within several years at least of the traditional date of the death of Jesus. The vast network of these traditions, numerically significant, widely dispersed, and largely independent of one another, makes it almost certain that whatever one wants to say about Jesus, at the very least one must say that he existed.”

Excerpt From: Bart D. Ehrman. “Did Jesus Exist? – The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.” iBooks.

And then there’s the tu quoque fallacy for good measure:

And I wonder whether he discussed his argument in this section with his one-time co-author Richard Carrier, who appeals to hypothetical earlier versions of the Ascension of Isaiah in his arguments.

McGrath is nothing if not a multi-skilled professional. It is rare to find him ever limiting himself to just one fallacy in a post attacking mythicism.

This post does not hang together very well. I feel I have presented two quite disjointed halves. I think I need to go back and read the core arguments of Lataster’s article again to see how the second half of the post related to those arguments ……

But hey, that’s just what Pirie says is the beautiful thing about trivial objections: they deflect attention from the main point. Success!

Pirie, M 2006, How to Win Every Argument, Continuum, London.


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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Trivial Fallacies of a Hostile Anti-Mythicist”

  1. What I don’t get is why scholars like Ehrman assume there are independent sources if there are materials unique to a particular gospel. For instance, Matthew has material that is unique to his gospel (which didn’t come from Mark), so Ehrman assumes there must have been an ‘M’ source that Matthew used. One could just as easily argue Matthew was Judaizing the gentile gospel of Mark, so that he simply ‘invented’ the material that was unique to him. Similarly, instead of there being an ‘L’ source, we could say that Luke was simply inventing material to be ‘universalizing’ the gospels of Mark and Matthew (if there was no ‘Q’ source). Logically, unique material doesn’t imply a unique source. Writers in the Jewish biblical tradition certainly had no problems with inventing material if it suited their theological purposes. For example:

    (1) Minimalist interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Tanakh or the Protestant Old Testament) often consider much of the Tanakh/Jewish Bible to be a pious fiction, such as the conquests of Joshua. Borras, Judit, Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, BRILL, 1999, p 117: “.. the overwhelming consensus of modern scholarship is that the conquest tradition of Joshua is a pious fiction composed by the deuteronomistic school”

    (2) The historiography of the Pentateuch is considered a noble lie. Stanley, Christopher, The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, Fortress Press, 2009, p 123: “Minimalists begin with the fact that the Hebrew Bible did not reach its present form until well after the Babylonian exile … most the that the story was formulated by a group of elites who wanted to justify their claims to dominate … In other words, the narrative [of the Hebrew Bible] is a pious fiction that bears little relation to the actual history of Palestine during the period it purports to narrate.”

    (3) The Book of Daniel has also been described as a pious fiction, with the purpose of providing encouragement to Jews. Carson, D. A. For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, Good News Publishers, 2006, p 19: “Many critics doubt that the account of Daniel 4 is anything more than pious fiction to encourage the Jews.”

  2. At least in the United States I think relatively few biblical scholars would be impressed by any arguments coming from “minimalists”. I’m not sure if you are aware of what this term refers to — but for the benefit of anyone not familiar with it, it refers to scholars of the Old Testament who oppose the conventional wisdom of their field and argue instead that the Biblical story of Israel — including the period of the two kingdoms — is very largely mythical. It was mostly invented after the settlement of Palestine by new peoples the Persians had deported there after they destroyed the Babylonian empire.

    I have set out the basic outline of the “minimalist” interpretation at http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/index.htm for anyone interested.

    What interests me more than the statements of opinions by scholars is trying to find out why they have reached those conclusions, the evidence they have used, why they have interpreted it is certain ways. That’s where the meat is.

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